Do you need to like the characters you create, no matter how reprehensible they may be?
This is a question I’ve asked myself many times. Agatha Christie, for example, openly acknowledged that her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot “restricted her style”. In a Radio Times interview with her grandson, Mr Prichard, he says of his grandmother that she wanted to “exorcise herself of him”. Hercule Poirot was Agatha Christie’s most popular character, and yet he was also the one she most wanted to kill off. This being said however, it didn’t stop her being able to write a prolific number of books about him. She didn’t need to like her character to write good mystery fiction.
Liza Hoeksma, Mumsnet Best author of “More Than Enough” said, “I think it’s nicer if you like them because you spend so much time with them”. Hoeksma is definitely hitting on something important here. As a writer, we do spend an inordinate amount of time with our characters, sometimes more time than we do with our friends and family. We choose how much time we spend with others based on how they make us feel, how much we have in common, how much we love them, out of a sense of loyalty etc. Why would we spend so much time with a character we cannot abide? For Agatha Christie it was simple, Hercule Poirot earned her the most amount of money. Sometimes we have to work with people we do not like just to put food on the table!
Hoeksma went on to say, “all characters can’t be likeable, in which case I’d say I need to know why they are like they are, so I can at least understand their motivations.” This hits on an important point. Regardless of how we feel about a character, no matter how reprehensible their actions might be, we do need to understand what makes them tick in order for them to be well-rounded, fleshed-out, and believable creations. They may get under our skin sometimes, but unless we can also get under their’s then they will remain somewhat shallow and two dimensional.
Susan Elia MacNeal, author of of the brilliant “Maggie Hope” series of mysteries set during World War II, said this: “I try to find the humanity in all of them. but I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with some of them.” This makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with Clara Hess for example. Yet Hess is a character of immense depth and complexity, with a great deal of humanity about her.
It would seem that the important thing is to have some kind of emotional engagement with the characters we create. Without that engagement, we cannot possibly expect our readers to do the same. Whether we want them to succeed or fail, flourish or die, the important thing is that we, and hopefully our readers, become invested in the outcome. As best-selling author Ken Follett says, “like them or hate them. But indifference is no good.”
As Agatha Christie has proven, we don’t have to like our characters in order to be successful writers. But, as Liza Hoeksma reminds us, it does help if we do like them, as we spend so much time with them. The important thing however seems to be for us to understand what makes them tick, or as Susan Elia MacNeal says, “find their humanity”. Above all else we need to be invested in the characters we create. As Ken Follett says, we are not left with the option to be be indifferent, and nor should our readers.