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April 2017

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Sometimes the character has to be a jerk

Sometimes I hear people talking about book characters as if they are real people, arguing about why they did such-and-such or where they really should've ended up, and so on.  As a writer, that's one of my favorite things, when readers talk about my characters that way.  It means I've achieved suspension of disbelief!

On occasion, readers disapprove of something the character has done.  "She was too whiny there."  "I don't see why he had to be so mean to Character X."  "Why did she have to stab her friend in the back like that?" (These are made-up quotes, by the way, just to catch the spirit of what I'm talking about.)

Mostly, we want writers to like our main characters, to identify with them.  (There are exceptions.)  It's okay if the villain is a jerk--villains are supposed to be jerks.  But what about when our beloved main character strays into jerkitude?

It can be painful to know that a reader might not like what the character's doing in a particular scene, but it's necessary for the story.  Our main characters sometimes act like jerks because human beings, in general, sometimes act like jerks.  Perfect characters are boring, and perfect people don't exist.  I'm fond of my characters partly because they sometimes act like jerks--I suppose because I can usually see the pain or desire underneath.  That's what's interesting: when they're driven by something, when they're hurting or yearning but won't admit it.  If they always did the right thing and were open and honest about everything, well--then there probably wouldn't be much of a story.


Thank you for this. I get these kinds of comments ALL the time, and I try to remember that it's actually good people are emotionally involved.
Sometimes "pleasing" the reader is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes the reader wants the character to be nicer, or to be protected, because s/he likes the character--not realizing that the conflict is what helps make the character more attractive in the first place.
Jerkitude - great word. Nobody and no character is immune.

BTW - Thanks so much for the book. I received it this weekend and managed to cuddle up with it on the couch for a little bit. I'm enjoying it.
I'd love to know what you think about Someday
This Pain ... when you're done. I got more out of it the 2nd time I read it!
" . . . and then, after saving the puppy, he rescued the kittens, collected the pot of gold from the rainbow, donated it to a worthy cause and skipped home. The End."

Nobody wants to read that story. Seriously.
Yawn. You're right!
As long as I'm irritated with the character and not the author, I'm happy. Well, happily irritated! And, yes, I worry about getting that kind of reaction to one of my supposed to be hero-type characters. :)
Yes, I sometimes want to write in the margin, "My character may think this way, but I don't!"
You are so right. Nothing is more boring than a perfect character - their one dimensionalness tends to have me put the book down and find something else to do.
In a choice between being pleasant and serving the story, I need to serve the story. :-)
Absolutely. My most favorite character ever is Scarlett O'Hara, and she's a total jerk. She's selfish and bossy and greedy and delusional and yet I love her.

I wrote a post about Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights a while ago, and he strikes me as another jerk who has somehow attracted many, many readers. The character Hareton in the same book is much nicer and even heroic, but nobody ever talks about Hareton.


Thank you for saying this. I've been agonizing over the actions of one of my main characters. She does something horrible, truly shockingly awful, and I was afraid the reader would hate her, and me, the author, for said actions. It is crucial for the character development of the book, so now I feel a little better knowing others agree with me. I will not sacrifice my authorly integrity for the sake of being liked! And, yes, I know 'authorly' isn't a word, but it works :)
I think a big part of it is being able to understand why the character is doing it. If it makes sense, it doesn't have to be "nice."


Thank you!

I agree with you completely ... if people are arguing over what Character X did to Character Y and how much of a jerk they were, then we've done our jobs. I also love it when they complain about bad things happening to the character. Makes me glad they loved it.

Re: Thank you!

I don't know why it's so satisfying to see characters face the consequences of their actions, but it is. :-)


I totally agree - and I also love the unreliable narrator - when you are reading and suddently think - hey, wait a minute - I don't know if I can trust this guy!
Sometimes it's more important for the character to be interesting than to be likeable. Although I would contend that flawed characters are still likeable.


A great point. My MC acts like a jerk at some points in my WIP, and sometimes I get nervous about... but then I remember that's she's been emotionally devastated since her boyfriend died, and it's her sarcastic streak that makes her lovable, and I feel better. :)

~ Emilia
I love me some sarcasm. :-)
I've been worrying about my main character's "jerk level" in this new novel I'm writing. I realize there's that careful balance that must be made: she can't be too horrible or it risks making the reader hate her. So I'll have to make sure that there's a vulnerable side to her that the reader will be able to identify with and hopefully understand.

Thanks for the post!
Two things I've found usually make a character more sympathetic: vulnerability and/or humor.


Zaphod Beeblebrox.