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What Makes People Like Hateful Characters?

A couple of months ago I watched Perfect Couple, a Chinese historical screwball kung fu soap opera. One minute the hero and heroine were doing slapstick comedy. The next minute assassins were attacking and everyone was flying through the air on wires. Then hearts were breaking, main characters were dying, and people were sobbing in the rain. Then everyone went on a picnic.

In other words, it was amazing.

I noticed, while skimming the comments on DramaFever, that many people didn't like the hero. As is often the case in East Asian dramas, the writers gave the hero many flaws in the beginning to leave room for growth later. He started out conceited, petty, and pampered. The writers played up his over-the-top arrogance for laughs, then slowly made him grow up and become more serious and sensitive.

The hero's immaturity didn't bother me, since it was obviously deliberate and I've seen the same pattern in many Korean/Chinese/Taiwanese shows. But other Western viewers were very annoyed. Many comments followed the vein of, "It's been ten episodes already and Jin Yuan Bao is still such a jerk! I want Qi Ling to end up with Liu Wen Zhao instead. He's so nice to her, unlike Yuan Bao!"

Let me tell you about this Liu Wen Zhao, the hero's cousin. He secretly works for the evil Second Prince, who plots to steal the throne from his elder brother. Wen Zhao attempts to kill the hero and heroine multiple times. He organizes a human trafficking operation that kidnaps young girls and sells them to brothels. He murders innocent bystanders left and right and literally stabs his allies in the back.

But because Wen Zhao is very good at pretending to be sweet and humble, many viewers love him. They say, "Oh, he's not really evil. He's just blinded by his hatred for Yuan Bao, and can you blame him? Yuan Bao is so mean to him!" They're willing to overlook little things like strangling the maids because he suffers Yuan Bao's verbal barbs in silence and gazes at the heroine with the eyes of a lovelorn puppy.

On the other hand, you have Yuan Bao rescuing the kidnapped girls, helping poor villages by forgiving their tax debts, and saving the heroine from execution for murders Wen Zhao committed. But because he speaks sharply and sometimes bosses the heroine around, viewers don't like him.

People often judge others by their words and interpersonal behavior, not by their actions. They identify with characters who are likeable on the surface, even if they're rotten to the core.

Here are some examples from Western fiction.

Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lecter is a sadistic psychopath. He gets off on seeing others in physical and mental anguish, and he doesn't feel an ounce of guilt for literally eating them alive. But audiences root for him because he seems to treat Clarice Starling as an equal, unlike the macho guys she works with, and he seems to be the victim of bullies like the odious Dr. Chilton and the bumbling police.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lisbeth Salander is a horrible, horrible person. She tortures, manipulates, and steals without compunction. But she seems like a vulnerable little girl ruined by The System, so people call her "a strong female character."

Gone Girl: Amy is a demented woman who hatches a malicious plot to frame her husband for murder; who stabs her old boyfriend after having sex with him and lies that she was raped; and who even drinks antifreeze, throws it up, and keeps the vomit as "proof" that her husband tried to poison her. But because she acts gumdrop sweet, she fools not only the characters in the book, but the audience as well. Readers and movie-goers proudly announce they're on "Team Amy," and journalists write disturbing headlines like, "Gone Girl Offers Feminism a New Hero."

I don't believe that people root for these characters because they have poor morals. Everyone knows lying and stealing and murdering are bad things to do. But people identify with certain aspects of these characters, so they relax their moral codes temporarily out of sympathy.

Examining characters like these can tell you a lot about what really makes a character "likeable" in fiction, whether they're heroes, antiheroes, or villains.

They're victims.

People feel sorry for victims and underdogs, even if they're not really victims or underdogs. Hannibal Lecter seems like a victim because we see him trapped in dark, tiny cells and belittled by his keepers. Lisbeth Salander seems like a victim because we see her raped by her parole officer and persecuted by a corrupt government. Amy seems like a victim because we see her husband badmouthing her and sleeping around.

A quick and easy way to get the audience on a character's side from page one is portray him/her as a victim of bullies or circumstances. Cozy mysteries often start with the heroine fleeing to a new town after discovering that her fiance cheated on her with a pretty young seductress. Romances and children's/YA books often start with the protagonist trapped in the house of a domineering, unappreciative family. Books that feature male protagonists often start with the hero recovering from the death of his wife or enduring a life of poverty and abuse he longs to escape.

They hurt people the audience doesn't like or care about.

Hannibal's and Lisbeth's and Amy's victims are all unlikeable or downright terrible people, so readers aren't too bothered when they're killed. Liu Wen Zhao's victims are mostly bit characters who appear for one or two scenes only, so viewers don't care much about them.

If a hero is awful to a bully, audiences root for him. But if a hero or heroine is awful to someone likeable, audiences immediately dislike them. Jin Yuan Bao, the aristocratic hero of Perfect Couple, entered the viewers' bad books the moment he said unkind words to the cheerful peasant heroine, Qi Ling.

And once audiences form their alliances with characters, it's very difficult to break them. Many want to keep liking whom they liked at the beginning and hating whom they hated at the beginning, regardless of what the characters do later. They get upset when their favorite villain does villainous things and they can't sympathize with him anymore. They say, "I really liked Wen Zhao until he strangled that maid! He and Qi Ling would've been perfect together! I wish the writers hadn't ruined him!"

They're likeable on the surface.

I once watched a documentary about Al Capone. People who'd met him said he was the nicest guy around. He acted kind, generous, and neighborly. He was stylish and vivacious with a quick sense of humor. Because of this, he was very popular with the public and the press throughout the Prohibition era, despite the fact that he was responsible for brutal acts of violence—assassinating rival mobsters, intimidating voters to put "the right people" in power, and gunning down anyone who got in his way.

Like Al Capone, each of the villains/antiheroes above appear likeable on the surface. Hannibal Lecter is intelligent and refined. Lisbeth appears meek and quiet. And Amy, the master manipulator, is brilliant at acting the part of the chipper and naive young housewife. Compared to the misogynists, rapists, and philanderers around them, these characters practically wear halos on their heads.

Audiences identify with characters who are sympathetic, cool, or fun, even if they do terrible things. They don't identify with characters who are irritating, even if they do nothing wrong.

The whiny Holden Caulfield and vapid Bella Swan top the lists of "Most Annoying Book Characters." People dislike the meddling Emma Woodhouse for being a snobbish busybody, though she has kind intentions. They roll their eyes at the melodramatic Marianne Dashwood, though she doesn't do anything worse than cry herself sick over a fickle boyfriend. And they hate the mopy Tess Durbeyfield, not because she murders a man at the end, but because she's infuriatingly spineless and passive for five hundred pages before that.

All of this is totally natural.

Readers who like charismatic villains and dislike annoying heroes aren't shallow or immoral. They're just human.

Imagine you have two coworkers. One is an outstanding employee, but she's authoritative and demanding. She criticizes every imperfection in your work and often "helps" by taking total control of your projects.

The other is lazy and irresponsible, but she's sweet as apple pie. She forgets half of her promises and she never finishes her work on time, but she bakes cupcakes for every birthday and gives compliments freely.

Whom would you rather work with? Probably not the bossy one, even if she's objectively the better choice for your career. She might improve the quality of your work, but she'd also annoy you to no end. Most people would prefer the useless one, even if she makes life harder for everyone around her.

In essence, when people choose their friends, lovers, and leaders, they base their choices on how pleasant and charismatic he/she is, not so much on the quality of his/her character or skills. Audiences evaluate fictional characters the same way.

So how can we create complex protagonists with many flaws, like Jin Yuan Bao, without ticking readers off?

Put your character's best foot forward.

Here's my favorite word order test again, which I first included in my 2012 post "The Permanence of Snap Judgements."

Read this list of adjectives and decide whether you like the woman described.

  • Vain
  • Intelligent
  • Beautiful
  • Hardworking
  • Shy

Now read this one and do the same.

  • Shy
  • Hardworking
  • Beautiful
  • Intelligent
  • Vain

Most likely, you didn't like the first person, but you did the second. You imagined the first as a cold fish, but the second as an underdog. They're the exact same characteristics, but order is everything.

If you introduce your protagonist as likeable on page one, you're more likely to get away with slipping in the unlikeable traits later. But if you try to be artsy and show the protagonist at his/her worst on page one, readers will probably put the book down without buying. Establish your characters as heroes first, then delve into their complexities.

Make your villains really villainous.

You don't have to make saintly protagonists if your antagonists are Satan's spawn. As evidenced by Lisbeth Salander, audiences will cheer for even the most dubious of "heroes" if the enemies they're abusing are the scum of the earth.

Take some cues from Dexter, The Godfather, and other stories that make us feel sorry for murderous psychopaths. We feel sorry for them only because the "bad guys" are much more despicable than they are.

Even if your protagonist isn't a murderous psychopath, to be on his or her side the audience needs to see that the other side is much worse. Is your heroine vain and acid-tongued? Make her rivals insufferably selfish and sly, her work superiors arrogant and petty, and the Big Bad Guy inhumane. MaryJanice Davidson's comedic Undead series provides a good example of how to pull off a mean, prickly heroine by making the other characters truly awful.

Make up for "bad" characters with good writing.

If you really, really can't shape your character into someone the audience will like, your only remaining recourse is to make up for their shortcomings with language.

People tolerate aggravating protagonists in classic books like Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray because the narrative voices are lively and seductive enough to make up for the annoyance of watching flawed characters make dumb, destructive choices. Like a sprinkling of sugar on grapefruit, excellent writing can sweeten the reading experience just enough to redeem a bitter story.

Of course this is the most dangerous of options, because you're probably not equal to Oscar Wilde. If you think you're equal to Oscar Wilde, you're definitely not equal to Oscar Wilde.

So until a significant number of strangers compare you to Oscar Wilde, I suggest writing likeable protagonists. You can show the dark complexities of humanity through villains and side characters.

What I Learned from The Hunger Games

About 20,000 words into my cozy mystery, I aborted ship and gave up the genre. Writing about a book-loving heroine leading an idyllic life in an adorable seaside town was so very boring.

I happily breezed through the scenes of death and destruction and emotional turmoil, but when it came to the heroine's cute dates with her dreamboat crush and the sugar-laden tea parties with her quirky friends—the things cozy mystery readers are really after—I couldn't do it. I'm not the sort of person who can portray the world as sweet and fluffy, topped with pink frosting and sprinkles. So while I enjoy reading cozy mysteries, I can't write them.

Now I'm back to an idea that's been rattling around in my head for a year or so, but I was too afraid to try because it's different from anything I've read or written before, an action-packed YA fantasy set in historical Asia filled with political intrigue, fight scenes, and a touch of romance. The two-word elevator pitch: "steampunk ninjas."

Usually when I start a new writing project, I try to find popular books in the same genre to study. But Western novelists don't write about steampunk ninjas. Our historical fantasies take place in either Medieval Northern Europe, a la Camelot and Middle Earth, or Victorian Britain/America. Our storytelling style also focuses on one hero fighting one central villain. Americans aren't keen on the head-hopping, time-skipping, name-dropping style of classic East Asian novels like Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Jin Yong's Legend of the Condor Heroes.

So the task of finding a popular novel to dissect for this project was a head-scratcher, until I spotted the perfect candidate on my own bookshelf: The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games is not about steampunk ninjas. As a story that takes place in a futuristic dystopian America, it appears to be the exact opposite of a historical Asian fantasy. But it's not. In every respect but the setting, it's precisely what I intend to write, an action-packed YA fantasy filled with political intrigue, fight scenes, and a touch of romance.

In a previous blog post I said, "[Copycat novelists] see the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent and assume people like dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships, so they write more dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships. But these big-name novels aren't popular because of their settings. They're popular because they offer excitement and adventure."

After reading the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy, I'm even more convinced that the setting and basic premise of the trilogy are not the root of Suzanne Collins' commercial success. Rather, she succeeded because she carefully crafted the story elements to appeal to young readers. I believe she could have set it in any time period, any place, and it still would have been popular for the following reasons.

The story is packed with action and drama.

Collins doesn't shy away from raw emotions and brutal subjects. Characters feel intense rage, despair, and fear. They face the worst situations a human can: starvation, torture, the loss of loved ones, and helplessness in the face of certain death. The book is an emotional roller coaster that offers young readers the extreme highs and lows they love to revel in.

Every scene is full to the brim with action and emotion. In many books the story grinds to a halt for whole pages while the author describes the scenery or the food or a character's appearance. But in this book, the action moves forward on every page. Any lulls in the action are deliberate, like Collins sticking Katniss and Peeta in a cave for three days to develop their tortured romance. Otherwise, the plot train stops for no one.

Even descriptive passages tell stories. A mountain isn't just a mountain—it's a trigger for Katniss to recall a precious memory with her father, or to explain a landmark in the history of Panem. A piece of bread isn't just a piece of bread—it's a symbol of how precious food is in this dystopian world. If birds are singing in the trees, they're birds that were genetically engineered for war and became metaphors for peaceful rebellion and human resilience. There are no extraneous birds.

The protagonist is heroic, but not a goody-two-shoes.

Katniss is an unimpeachable hero. She's smart, strong, mature, humble, and beautiful. She refuses to cry even when she's saying goodbye to her family before being shipped off to her death. She performs impressive and unlikely feats, like sticking it to the adults who underestimate her at her skills evaluation and outsmarting gangs of bloodthirsty bullies during the Games. And of course she's an underdog, a street urchin from the deep South with nothing to her name but her spunk and wits.

She doesn't have any faults that readers would genuinely dislike: pettiness, arrogance, selfishness, etc. Her only shortcomings are ones that teenagers will approve of and identify with: she can be brutal for the sake of her loved ones, she has a hot temper in the face of injustice, and she resents her mother for being weak and unreliable. Every teenager goes through a period in which they hate their parents for failing to be perfect saints.

Objectively, Katniss is a very reactive character. She spends most of the book hiding and tending her wounds until the Gamemakers or the Careers force her to come out and fight. The things she needs literally fall from the sky when she needs them. Katniss doesn't "win" the Hunger Games so much as survive them with a great deal of luck.

Still, she comes across as a heroic character because of her voice. Readers care a lot less about what a protagonist does than about how a protagonist speaks and acts. They want ideal, likeable heroes, and Katniss fits the bill.

In fact, if I were to accuse her of any real flaw as a character, it would be that she's too awesome. Nobody who lives outside the pages of a book (or the screen of a movie theater) could consistently shoot squirrels in the eye with a handmade longbow. But when you're writing for young adults—or for people in general—making a heroine "too awesome" is much better than making her "lame."

There's a strong aspect of wish fulfillment.

Because of her beauty and virtues, Katniss becomes a celebrity and a heroine of the people. Everyone in her hometown gives her a touching salute when she volunteers to take her sister's place in the Games. All eyes in Panem focus on her during the parade, the whole world regularly chants her name, and two handsome boys have been secretly in love with her for years.

Other than the bit about the country going to hell in a hand basket, this is the dream life of every teenager and many adults.

Even the setting, though dystopian in principle, is somewhere people would want to live. The Capitol of Panem resembles the Emerald City in the merry old land of Oz. People with crazy neon skin walk around in cool futuristic fashions. Like Dorothy, Katniss has a posse of beauticians who make her look like an exotic princess. Her room at the Training Center is full of toys straight out of Star Trek, like a contraption that magically styles her hair in a glossy curtain and a kiosk that zaps up any snack in seconds.

Plus, she gets to gorge herself on gourmet meals polished off with cake, and it does her good because she's too skinny. (Screw you, Katniss. Screw you.)

Collins' portrayal of the Capitol surprised me, because every other dystopian novel I've read emphasized how scary the future could be, not how fun it could be. I expected the usual toxic ruins of once great cities, the pale masses huddling together for warmth in dank subway tunnels, the fights to the death over moldy scraps of food. I was not expecting crystal elevators, gorgeous rooftop gardens, and evening gowns made of dazzling gemstones.

The term "wish fulfillment" is often used derogatorily, to imply that a work is insubstantial, unrealistic, and mercantile. But it's a very important part of any story, because it's the primary reason people read. People read romances to dream about falling passionately in love with handsome millionaires who treat them like royalty; they read historical novels to dream about living in simpler times and wearing elegant clothes; they read mysteries to dream about using their smarts to save the day and restore order to the universe. Wish fulfillment is the reason Jane Austen has avid fans 200 years after her death, why Disney's live-action Cinderella grossed more than $120 million worldwide in its opening weekend, why the Star Trek franchise is still going strong, and why J. K. Rowling is still the world's richest author eight years after the last Harry Potter book was published.

And I have no doubt that it played a key role (if not the key role) in the popularity of The Hunger Games. Every kid wants to be a beloved star like Katniss, and reading about cool fashions and toys is a lot more pleasant than reading 400 pages of misery, misery, misery.

There's tragic romance and comic relief.

No matter the basic recipe of a YA book, there are two spices that no author can skip if they want happy readers: romance and humor.

The Hunger Games has plenty of romance. I actually think it has a bit too much romance. Of all romantic polygons, triangles are my least favorite. But I'm not a teenager anymore. When I was a teenager, the romantic plot-line of a story was the only one that mattered, whether it was the main point of the story or not. I skimmed the boring historical/philosophical/political bits of Anna Karenina to see if Levin and Kitty would ever make up. I was mildly amused by Anne Shirley's misadventures with Diana, Matthew, and Marilla, but I got excited only when I saw the name Gilbert on the page. And forget stupid Voldemort and his stupid wizarding world wars—I was reading Harry Potter to make sure Ron and Hermione ended up together like they were destined to.

I believe that of every ten teenagers who read the entire Hunger Games trilogy, seven or eight of them do so primarily because they want to see Katniss and Peeta get married and live happily ever after. The whole restoring democracy thing is interesting too, but not interesting enough on its own to keep teenage hands from wandering away from the books and towards smartphones and TV remotes.

Another important aspect of the book is the clever humor, which Collins throws in at the moments you'd least expect it. The dialogue crackles with dark wit, especially when Peeta's in the scene.

"I've seen you in the market. You can lift hundred-pound bags of flour. That's not nothing."

"Yes, and I'm sure the arena will be full of bags of flour for me to chuck at people. It's not like being able to use a weapon. You know it isn't," [Peeta] shoots back.

"He can wrestle," I tell Haymitch. "He came in second in our school competition last year, only after his brother."

"What use is that? How many times have you seen someone wrestle someone to death?" says Peeta in disgust.

"There's always hand-to-hand combat. All you need is to come up with a knife, and you'll at least stand a chance. If I get jumped, I'm dead!" I can hear my voice rising in anger.

"But you won't! You'll be living up in some tree eating raw squirrels and picking off people with arrows."

Collins wrote for television for decades before she wrote The Hunger Games, and I think it shows in the dialogue. Her conversations have the snappy pace and tone of a classic Nickelodeon show, and she writes smart characters instead of relying on cursing or vulgarity for flavor.

If there's one thing I've learned by reading many reviews of books, movies, and TV shows, it's that Americans like their characters to be smart. We hate, hate, hate it when heroes or heroines act or speak like idiots. When I see many Korean, Chinese, or Japanese shows translated for American audiences, the comment walls are nothing but complaints about how annoying the main characters are. The weak, girlish heroines that charm audiences in Asia are seen by us as air-headed, and the humble, self-sacrificial heroes stuffed to the gills with filial piety are seen by us as dumber than a sack of rocks.

Westerners enjoy reading or watching characters like Gregory House, Veronica Mars, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc., who are smarter than everyone else and talk like it. So when Peeta hides his badly injured body in the mud and quips, "Frosting: the final defense of the dying," it's right up our alley.

Vacation Days

Before this past Monday, I hadn't blogged, written, jogged, enjoyed a work-free weekend, or slept for an uninterrupted 8 hours for approximately two months. The reason was this, the bane of my existence since January 2014.

PCC Library website

Pictured is the website of the Portland Community College Library, which went live at midnight on Monday, June 15. (I used to attempt to hide where I work, but my LinkedIn account is the first result if you Google my name, so I might as well show off.)

If you think writing and publishing a book is exhausting, try developing a website for academics. :p

Now I'm taking an official vacation for two weeks. I have a lot to do in these weeks before I have to drag myself back to work. So far I have...

Turned a summer dress I haven't worn since college into a handy-dandy apron.

TK wearing apron

Used the remaining fabric to make drink coasters.

Fabric coaster

Coaster with cup

Made hair accessories out of old bobby pins and headbands, nail polish, and plastic gems torn off a thank you card the library director gave me for surviving the redesign.

Glittery hair pins

Flower hair pin

Gem headband

Took a picture of myself for the first time since I cut my hair in bangs last year. All the beauty experts in women's magazines say you can't have bangs with a round face, so since elementary school I'd worn my hair in one uniform length, pulled back and/or parted to one side. Then last summer I rebelled, seized a pair of scissors, and discovered that the magazines lie. My face looks smaller than it ever did without bangs.

TK with bangs

An added benefit of this hairstyle: I can cosplay as Maya Fey or an ancient Chinese palace maid without using a wig.

Maya Fey sprite

Palace Maids in Three Kingdoms

TK with Maya Fey hair

All I need is a long robe, and I'm all set to serve court ministers bowls of wine infused with the blood of traitors.

I've also been walking/jogging on the treadmill every other day, when Luna's not using it.

Luna on the treadmill

Still on the to do list:

  • Finish some blog posts that were left half-written weeks ago.
  • Experiment with sweet and savory baozi fillings. I recently tried steaming my bean paste buns instead of baking them, and I'm never baking them again. So magically fluffy!
  • Sit down and outline my steampunk wuxia trilogy. Cozy mysteries didn't work out because there weren't enough sword fights.

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