Tag: unlikable characters

Short story: “Starter House”

“Starter House,” by Jason Palmer

Appeared in the Drabblecast, episode 362, June 14th, 2015

Maybe 4,000 words?—not sure

A slight story, because the family and their complacence and their cruelty are all so repellent. But fun, because their ending feels so well deserved.


Short story: “Basilisk”

“Basilisk,” by Peter Gillott

Appeared in Dark Tales, issue 5, autumn 2004

2,234 words

A quick, enjoyable tale, though it suffers from the slightness common to short genre stories. The characters are shallow and unlikable, and exist mainly for the fun of seeing them hurt each other. I’m impressed by the swift pacing, though.

Short story: “Unwell”

“Unwell,” by Carolyn Parkhurst

Appeared in the anthology Stories: All-New Tales (2010), edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, which won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Edited Anthology

Maybe 8,000 words?

Deliciously nasty. This is the best kind of unlikable character—the one who keeps us guessing what awful thing she’s going to do next.


Short story: “Veil of Ignorance”

“Veil of Ignorance,” by David Barr Kirtley

Originally published in The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology Vol. 3: All the Rage This Year (2004), edited by Keith Olexa; appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, February 2015; read aloud for MechMuse Audio Magazine; also available on the author’s site

4454 words

Marvelously clever, and I found the ending very believable. I would not take this drug, but if I did, I would never stop. Being a particular person is hard.

The characters are cardboard-thin stereotypes (Kirtley says in his Lightspeed Author Spotlight that he needed them all to be recognizable types). I couldn’t help wishing they were even vaguely likable or sympathetic, but I see why it would difficult to write them that way without making the piece overlong or confusing. The story is pretty compelling anyway.


Short story: “Debbieland”

“Debbieland,” by Aimee Bender

Appeared in Black Clockissue #1, spring 2004/summer 2004

2,694 words

I was about to say that this is a very sad story, because the narrator will never allow herself to recognize herself and Debbie and her ex-girlfriend for what they are, human beings who need kindness; she will never learn to feel remorse. But then again maybe it’s a horrifying story, because the narrator feels herself to be happiest, rightest, when she is feeding off other people’s pain without any particular regard for the consequences to them. I identify with her very much.

“Perhaps, in a way, if anyone cries on us, we then own them, a piece of them, forever.”


Short story: “Men of Unborrowed Vision”

“Men of Unborrowed Vision,” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Appeared in issue 56 of Lightspeed Magazine, January 2015

7429 words

A troublingly believable tale of the near future.

I felt like Mara’s attitude towards Adam ought to be more strongly tinged with racial awareness, beyond just that aside about “spoiled, rich white boys[.]” But as a white writer, I probably overthink things like that.

I also felt like Adam’s puppyish persistence ought to put Mara off more than it does. Maybe she doesn’t have much experience getting befriended and pestered this way? She’s been immersed in the cause for a long time. Still, she should have more friends.

Mara’s choices at the end seem pretty terrible to me. She refuses to be treated for the disease, even though her getting treated could only benefit her OHL friends. Maybe on some subconscious level she’s trying to push Adam to take action, but that’s a gamble, especially since he’s a passive dork most of the time. Then she immediately posts on the OHL forum, which (let’s face it) is probably being monitored. I’m not saying I would have a better plan, but I wish Mara did, especially since the story ends without revealing the consequences of her actions.

I’m never very satisfied with stories whose structure is so slice-of-life. This piece is like a TV episode; you can tell there’s a lot more to come, so even when it ends on an exciting note, you can feel that it’s incomplete. I do look forward to more glimpses of Mara’s world, though.


On bad criticism

The two January 2014 comments on this post are amazing to me. I want to find their obtuseness gratifying, and I guess some part of me does, but at the same time I’m almost literally clutching my head.

(Dear gods, grant me that I may never be so clueless as a critic—or at least grant me the power to delete embarrassing old blog posts.)

If you read “Bullet in the Brain” while holding the same premise as these two commenters—that the main character is supposed to be admirable, even likable, from the start—then yes, it is a terrible story. In this reading, the author/narrator opens by boasting about how superior Anders is, then shows him being snarky and fearless to the end, and then gives a lengthy eulogy about his dull personal life and his passion (genius?) for language. That’s not even a complete story. There’s no tension, no surprise.

How did these two commenters misread the piece so badly? I suspect they have both read too much bad amateur writing, in workshop groups or on fanfiction sites. Making the main character the hero of the piece is a natural, obvious choice for beginning writers, and making the hero an idealized self-insert is an easy mistake to make. If you spend a lot of time critiquing that kind of stuff, without being aware of more sophisticated and risk-taking writing, then you probably develop a habit of skimming for common mistakes.

One thing I genuinely admire about these commenters is that they make their faulty premise explicit. That’s something that a lot of workshop critiquers forget to do, because they assume they don’t need to. Criticism is only meaningful when it includes an interpretation of the work being criticized: What is this piece about? What is this character portrayal supposed to convey?


Novel: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in 2000 by Faber and Faber; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

313 pages, saith Wikipedia

I was deeply invested in this book when I started reading. A riff on old-fashioned detective stories, plus Ishiguro-style meditations on memory and self-deception, seemed like about as much fun as I could ask for. Then I got to the transition point—I think it’s when Banks first returns to Shanghai—and realized I was in for a long stretch of Unconsoled-style dream-life. I waited impatiently for the original story to be resolved, but you can’t resolve semi-realistic tension with dream logic. And Banks, who had been likable and easy to relate to, became basically like Ryder in The Unconsoled: a knot of neuroses and literary themes, untrustworthy, unrecognizable. Eventually the dreamlike section ended and the plot stuff got resolved, and there were genuinely moving moments as well. But the fun never came back. The dreamlikeness never got explained either.


Edited to add that I think Ishiguro is trying to find a way to combine the dreamlike mode of The Unconsoled with the semi-realistic mode of his first three novels. It seems like a reasonable thing to attempt, and it makes sense to nest the dream stuff in the center of the more realistic storyline, but it just doesn’t work for me. I think the problem is that, while I can accept a dreamlike story on its own terms, I can’t accept it in such a realistic context. The dream stuff lowers the stakes, brings the “real” story to a halt, nullifies any stable sense of worldbuilding and thereby kills suspense, et cetera.


Short story: “A Woman of Properties”

“A Woman of Properties,” by Jack Matthews

Recorded for Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

? words

Delicious. I would call this story cruel to its main character, but that’s not quite right. The author/narrator depicts her failure and her repression precisely, impartially. Actually, now that I’ve written that out, I find myself skeptical of the author/narrator’s impartiality. Is a story really less cruel because it is carefully crafted, because it avoids showing any sign of malice? Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I find it impossible to hate the character, or even look down on her, no matter how awful she is. I know her too well.


Short story: “Kilifi Creek”

“Kilifi Creek,” by Lionel Shriver

Appeared in the New Yorker November 25th, 2013 (subscribers can read here)

About 5 1/3 New Yorker pages, ? words

Bleak and precisely to the point.

About two-thirds of the way into the first page, the omniscient narrator teases us with the suggestion that Liana’s fate is not fixed. We’re over three pages in before we find out how her swim came to an end, but even then, things could still have gone either way. Whether she’s alive or dead is arbitrary, out of anyone’s control.

Having aged far more than a few hours this evening, Liana was disheartened to discover that maturity could involve getting smaller. [… I]n some manner that she couldn’t put her finger on she also felt less real—less here—since in a highly plausible alternative reality she was not here.

I find it curious that, at the story’s end, Liana considers the past fourteen years of her life to have been “largely good[.]” The narrator deliberately keeps us at a cool, objective, slightly disdainful distance from her, never allowing us to like or pity her, and maybe that’s why I find her adult life contemptible. She makes no attempt to believe that “she had been rescued by an almighty presence who had grand plans for her[,]” and I admire her realism, but at the same time I find it contemptible that she never chooses any particular meaning in her life, any grand plan of her own or someone else’s. I don’t know whether that purposelessness is a form of fear or merely, horribly, another form of maturity.

Some people, I think, can regard their lives as meaningless and still largely good. Possibly just a matter of temperament.

Edit to add that perhaps the real story here is Liana’s ultimate existential failure to make her life meaningful. The maturity she chooses for herself is the kind that refuses to be fooled and therefore refuses to live. Having perceived that she can never be physically safe in a world full of death, she makes herself safely, cravenly insignificant.