Start In the Dirt: On Writing ‘Unlikable’ Characters

From “Dévises héroiqves et emblèmes” (1622) via Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note:

Just as with real people, it takes time to get to know and like certain characters. Here, the author of The Sky Is Yours explains why she thinks hers are worth the effort.

When people ask me about the unlikable characters in my new novel The Sky Is Yours, I’m always torn. One part of me instantly says – yes! The novel is set in a dystopia, a futuristic version of New York called Empire Island, plagued by pollution, income inequality, mass incarceration… and dragons. Dystopias are by their very nature systems created by flawed people that produce flawed people in return, and for that reason, dystopian stories that center on untainted heroes standing up to inhumanly evil Big Bads don’t ring true to me.

In my novel I use a plural first-person narrator to talk about the city as “a system we plug into, a system that we are.” Even non-conformists define themselves against the culture they inhabit. Our society informs the vocabulary we use, our slang and diction, the names we give to our emotions and the way we express those emotions to others. It seeps into our dreams. We feed on its garbage – the ads, the earworm pop songs, the porn, the reality TV – and we are what we eat.

In the world of The Sky Is Yours this whole system is sick, so how could my characters be uninfected? Wouldn’t that be a huge cop-out?

But when people ask me about my unlikable characters, I have another response too. I take offense the way a mother might if her preschooler soiled himself and broke the communal art class crayons and chased a classmate with a pair of scissors, but then came home crying at theend of the day because he was lonely. Pure, aghast indignation: “You mean the other kids don’t like him?”

Of course, I wouldn’t like some of my characters either, if I met them in real life. Duncan Ripple, one of the book’s three protagonists, is especially repugnant. The eighteen-year-old scion of the city’s wealthiest family, he’s an entitled former reality star, crude and sexist, materialistic and self-involved, ignorant more out of laziness than due to innate stupidity… though he possesses both laziness and apparent stupidity in abundance. When the novel opens, he’s flying his hovercar, only to be knocked out of the sky by a dragon – not because the dragon attacked him, but simply because he wasn’t paying attention.

My original conception for his character was that he would live out the whole rest of the novel, learning nothing, until, with new arrogance, he appointed himself dragon-slayer and ascended to the sky once more, only to be struck down again in exactly the same way, this time not surviving the crash. I named him Duncan Ripple as a play on words: he was destined to dunk into the ocean, leaving little more than a ripple behind.

But I soon discovered that in order to write Duncan well, I couldn’t allow him to remain static. Duncan is absolutely a product of his toxic environment. Still, he’s not a simple cube of compacted trash. There’s something more to him: an animating energy that brings all that accumulated detritus to life. In every scene, I found he was reaching for the tools available at his fingertips to act out the saga of his own desires and emotions, many of which I related to (he came out of my head, after all). Though the tools he had immediate access to were pretty uniformly awful, it was that reaching that made me fall in love with him, and eventually see in him the potential for at least a little growth and change.

People want different things from the characters in novels. Some want aspirational figures, role models to emulate as they tackle the challenges of their own lives. Others want characters they can relate to, best friends uploaded right into their brain from the words on the page. At least right now, what I value most are characters who are of their world without becoming merely symptomatic of it.

In his masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pynchon writes a lot about the preterite or fallen, the ones left down on the ground by God, passed over, stuck in the muck of history. Fallenness is a precondition, but the story doesn’t end there. Just as gravity itself remains a mystery to us – as Pynchon writes, “Gravity, taken so for granted, is really something eerie, Messianic, extrasensory in Earth’s mindbody” – you might never understand, let alone master, all of the forces acting upon you. But you still define yourself as a character by the choices you make under their influence.

If we didn’t start down in the dirt, it wouldn’t mean much to reach for the sky.