Difficult Fictional Characters: Love ‘em or Leave ’em?

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When I lived in Manhattan in my early twenties, I had a friend who was an extraordinary musician, funny, smart, and generous.

She was also moody, quick to take offense, irrational, and self-destructive. In the five years I knew her, she spent at least a year of days not speaking to me.

After I married and moved out of the city, she and I lost touch because I didn’t send any Christmas cards one year, but she sent me one and got mad and… You get the picture.

She was difficult.

While difficult characters can be stressful in real life, they make for great fiction. Some of the fictional characters who have stuck with me most intensely are also difficult: Olive Kitteridge, Theo Decker in The Goldfinch, Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, Rachel in The Poisonwood Bible, Catherine Land in A Reliable Wife. All of these books were bestsellers with thousands of positive reader reviews. But they all have a sizeable number of negative reviews, and the negatives share a theme: “I didn’t like these characters. They weren’t nice people.”

When I read negative reviews like that, I’m motivated to run right out and buy the book. I’m pretty confident a book full of difficult characters won’t be boring or predictable or sappily sentimental. Difficult characters create conflict, and conflict is the essence of story. Difficult characters make me want to cover my eyes while screaming “no!” and then peep through my fingers to see what those crazy people will get into next.

Difficult characters are not always villains. A serial killer is not difficult; he’s evil through and through (which is why I don’t like serial killer books). Difficult characters are complex, they have good qualities but they usually create the very situations that bring them grief. Perhaps that’s why some readers don’t like them—if you read to escape reality, difficult characters will bring you hurtling back down to earth. And difficult characters also hold up a mirror and show you your own shortcomings, a sight you may not be happy to see.

Difficult characters are challenging to write. Giving your hero or heroine serious flaws can be risky because if the character is entirely unsympathetic, readers may slam the book shut with a loud “who cares?!”. To me, a successful difficult character possesses a modicum of self-awareness. He often knows what he should be doing, even if he’s not quite able to do it.

I haven’t seen my difficult friend for years, yet I still think of her. Indeed, there are times when I’m in the company of perfectly nice people that I long for her outrageous opinions and unreasonable demands…just a little. She was difficult, but she was never dull.

Who are some of your most memorable difficult fictional characters? Do you love them, or hate them? Or both?

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