July to September in Writing: Balancing an Unlikeable Character…

BEHIND THE WRITING DESK_optIt’s been three months since my last blog post, but the first draft of my latest novel is done. I’ve said previously how this was a ‘surprise’ novel, as I knew this was going to be a longer project, but I hadn’t appreciated just how long it was going to be. At 300 pages and 117,586 words (as this draft stands now) ‘The Slaves of the Underworld’ is my longest story for ‘The Darkwood Mysteries’ series yet. Thankfully, with a good plan, it all came together easily and flowed nicely. The only difficulty I had was with a co-worker–sorry–character, who I found to be quite unlikable, and I found this to be a bit of struggle, for if I didn’t like him, then would my readers take to him, and would Hobbs’ friendship with Peter reflect poorly on him–my main character?

Peter Doyle was Hobbs’ best friend from his days on the street, and whilst Peter was there for Hobbs in those days–even saving his life–he is largely self-serving, unreliable, inconsistent and untrustworthy. His care for Hobbs is pretty much his only redeeming feature. In the first encounter with Hobbs in ‘Slaves of the Underworld’ Peter lets Hobbs down through an action which leads to the major peril of the book for Darkwood and Hobbs, so I’m grateful for Peter as he gave me the novel, but it’s not the best introduction for a reader to a character which will end up being companion to Hobbs through much of the novel. I tried to work around this with segways back to Hobbs and Peter on the street as two scrappy kids trying to survive, and with Hobbs trying to weigh up whether Peter was a true friend or a relationship forged through a shared need to survive the harsh conditions they grew up within. I normally hate flashbacks, but this was really the only way to provide the background without a big lead up to the events of the novel.

Despite trying to balance Peter’s actions in the novel’s present with the past, I was finding even this wasn’t enough to balance Peter’s character, so I tried to introduce some redeeming actions. I soon realised that while I was trying to make Peter palatable for the reader I was missing a point which would help me out–Peter ultimately knows he has let Hobbs down and he needed to admit and make this up to his friend and prove himself. Especially after all the years of separation between them. This gave me an inroads, thankfully. It showed that Peter cared enough that he wanted–needed–Hobbs and their friendship. That was a start, but I then found I couldn’t bring Hobbs to forgive and forget what Peter has done, as Peter is responsible for people he cares about to end up in the situation they are in. To do so seemed to weaken Hobbs, and risk disappointment in him from the reader–like the person who goes back to the abusing unfaithful partner.

In ‘Ivory’ and ‘Harvest’, two of my contemporary novels, I had two unlikeable characters–Martin contemplating cheating on his wife, and Cat who vehemently hated one of the main characters. I think Martin just about gets a pass as he is at least under a supernatural influence–a siren luring him towards the rocks, and while Cat is pretty horrible right up until the end, she does at least put her life at risk for theĀ world. Someone was recently kind enough to spare the time to review ‘Harvest’ and something they didn’t like about Cat was the sense she had that she was being invited to sympathise with Cat, when she had been pretty terrible to everyone in the book until that point. It’s great to hear people’s opinions on characters I’ve created, even if they’re not liked, but if Cat can save theĀ world and not be redeemed, then there’s not much hope for Peter Doyle.

I realised that the key to making Peter a flawed character, was for him to be vulnerable, and have Peter actually come around to admitting this himself. I drew on my therapy and mental health work for this–and that which I recognise in myself–that there are so many of us out there acting in response to their perception of ourselves and the world, rather than our true selves and the unfiltered life around us, and Peter was just one of us. Unfortunately, I wasn’t done with making Peter a dick, and so there is a far reaching revelation which casts Peter under further shadow and reveals a very personal and spiteful betrayal of Hobbs. Ultimately, Peter is the one who suffers through his actions, though, through guilt and self-loathing–risking his most important relationship–and this is what informs his self-destructive tendencies which undermines what he values, and what he needs, to feel good. Suddenly having Peter admit his lies, his mistakes, and to recognise his flaws, and despair that he doesn’t know what to do about them, and Peter made fucked up sense. I found I understood Peter, and that just about redeemed him for me. I find it funny as a writer, that I populate worlds with people I think I know, but often don’t get to fully know them until I sit down with them and write.

Do I like Peter? Eh, no, not really, but I understand why Hobbs spent so much time with him and cherished him so much, and I do find their child-like physical closeness sweet. Does Hobbs like him? Despite everything, yes, but, I think there’s some pity in there. I’m sure we can all relate to having the friend who can’t help themselves, and with reunions with old friends, where distance sharpens clarity on character and differences. Hobbs has ultimately grown beyond the boy he was, and in a sense he has grown beyond their friendship. Hobbs is a better man than Peter has become. He would like to have Peter in his life, to forge a new friendship–one that is balanced and most likely conditional to protect himself. In that–the way I can be so quick to dismiss people and distance myself from them generally these days–I think Hobbs is a better man than me.

That left me with what to do with Peter at the close of the novel? I was going to draw a line under their friendship in death. To leave Hobbs with what was and what could have been. I was also going to have Hobbs do something which led to Peter’s death, to have Hobbs saddled with a flaw and some of the guilt Peter struggled with, but this felt too much for Hobbs–he suffers enough in this story and ‘The Disaster Man’ will already see Hobbs do something intentionally which is pretty disturbing. The way I had Peter’s death set up also felt a little contrived and overly dramatic. I realised that Peter didn’t actually have to die, he could live beyond the novel and be another character for the series, or perhaps he could choose his own death and redeem himself that way, or he could just survive and be left to pick up the pieces. Oh, the power! The POWER! Peter was at a bit of a cross-roads and I think the choice I made in the end–at least as the first draft stands–fits well with the the story, for what Peter would want, and offers Hobbs some closure which redeems Peter for him, and it’s his friendship, it’s Hobbs’ relationship with Peter, not ours, so what works for Hobbs is more important than what works for me or the reader.

So, with another project done, I’ve had a couple of writing sessions off with some annual leave, and now I’m ready to start plotting out the next story in ‘The Darkwood Mysteries’.



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