I Love the Bad Ones Best
By Louise Marburg
There is perhaps nothing more annoying to hear from an editor that they find a character too unsympathetic to be believable. Part of me wonders if the character in question might in fact be all too believable, possibly similar to someone the editor has known and disliked. We don’t like everyone we meet, or even completely like the people we love. No one is likeable to everyone and many people aren’t likeable at all. But the obnoxious guest gives spice to a party as we gossip gleefully behind his back; we may hate that bitchy boss at work, yet her very awfulness creates an office camaraderie that would be missing if she were a delight. A story that lacks an unsympathetic character is a story that, to my mind, falls flat.
I love all my characters, but I love the bad ones best, because by inhabiting them I give myself permission to mine my dark side, to do things on paper that I would never do in person but could imagine myself doing if I weren’t so darned nice. Anyone interested in unsympathetic characters should read Jernigan by David Gates, the story of an alcoholic demon of a man. He is unrelentingly awful and well aware of it, wreaking havoc wherever he is and hurting everyone he knows. The novel is fabulous in its excess and utterly fascinating to me; I read it straight through with bated breath to find out how far the protagonist would go. But even through my (delicious) dismay, I could feel Gates’ strong connection to his guy through Jernigan’s tragic moments of self-awareness in which the depth of his inner torment was revealed. Regardless of how it manifests itself, no matter from what well it springs, emotional suffering is a condition most readers understand. Unsympathetic characters are as much a part of us as any other character we write.
Occasionally readers find my characters less likeable than I mean them to appear. “Oh but don’t you feel a little sorry for Mrs. Temple?” I say of the main character in the eponymously titled story in my collection The Truth About Me. She is self-absorbed, yes, but her life hadn’t been easy, poor woman, and she has marital woes to boot. It bothers me that nobody understands that Mrs. Temple is really, at heart, quite nice. But they don’t know Mrs. Temple as I do; they only know her in the context of the story. Four thousand words couldn’t possible contain the whole of Mrs. Temple, the child, the adolescent, the adult. Recently, an exalted author read my story “Attractive Nuisance,” and asked me (he thought he had me here) what my nasty character, Kip, did for a living. “He sells real estate,” I answered immediately, because though I hadn’t put the fact on the page, I knew Kip as well as I knew myself. He sold real estate, he liked college basketball; apple turnovers were his favorite dessert. Sure, Kip was a jerk, but he was a human being as well, one with whom the reader might have a few things in common. Creating a character that’s unlikeable, but not so much so that his motivations aren’t somewhat understandable, is a fine line to walk, for I don’t want the reader to ask herself in confusion, why would anyone ever do that?
Unsympathetic characters are the ones who surprise me. They boss me around and tell me what they want, and it’s through their actions that my stories progress. I crave the moment when I sit back in astonishment and think, oh, so that’s where we’re going with this. If Jane steals a pearl necklace, then we’re off to the races, if Jane has a cup of tea, well…hmm. At the moment, I am writing a story that is boring me to death because no one has yet to be or do anything “bad.” But I can feel that the protagonist is on the verge of stepping forward to volunteer for unsympathetic duty, and the prospect excites me no end. It’s that trembling moment when a story either blossoms or dies. I can’t wait to see what happens.
LOUISE MARBURG is the author of the short story collection The Truth About Me. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Columbia University School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Carolina Quarterly, Day One, The Pinch, Folio, and others, and is forthcoming in Narrative. You can find her at louisemarburg.com