AWP 2014: Writing Unsympathetic Characters

Last week, I attended AWP in Seattle with other students in my program and fellow contributor, Tiffany Shelton. For those of you who haven’t heard of AWP, it’s a conference and bookfair held in a different city each year and hosted by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Both AWP and Write to Publish took place in February, and both conferences have set me on a roll. Recently, I’ve been writing anywhere from five hundred to a thousand words or more a night—and because I just told you, reader, I feel a certain obligation to keep up this stamina.

Because I’ve already written about how inspiring writing conferences can be, I won’t linger on the subject too long. Just go to one, if you can. They’re terrifying and uplifting; you leave feeling you have the permission to write, to struggle, and to succeed. And they make you realize that “success” doesn’t look the same for every writer—and that’s okay.

At AWP, I went to several panels, but this post will focus on a panel titled “I’m Just Not That Into You: Unsympathetic Characters in Fiction.” Author Irinia Reyn moderated the panel, which consisted of authors Hannah Tinti, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Maud Newton, and agent Ryan Harbage.

I attended this panel, because as both a reader and writer I have come to the realization that I am drawn to characters who others may deem unsympathetic. Irinia began by asking the panelists what they mean when they say a character is unsympathetic. Responses varied from “They appeal to our dark side” to “They are the characters I want to read about.” One panelist—and this stuck with me—said that sometimes unsympathetic characters are just people “put in a difficult situation who have to make a controversial choice.” Are unsympathetic characters the same as unlikeable characters? No. That was the response from the majority of the panelists. There’s no writer’s handbook that says your readers must like character a, b, and c. As one panelist said, “It’s good when someone has a reaction.”

Think of all the people you know in real life. Do you like all of them? No. If you do, congratulations. Give yourself a pat on the back. You’re a true saint, because that’s not the majority of humanity’s experience. If an author can convey that experience, with characters who are both loved and hated, then they’ve done their job. “Writers,” according to one panelist. “Get in trouble with a character who does bad things with out a motive. We want to know their psychology.”

To some extent I agreed with this, but of course, as most of us know, we can find an excuse for almost any bad thing we do. The ends don’t necessarily justify the means, however. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that they do. Some characters—some people—are just bad. Iago, from Shakespeare’s Othello was one of those characters who seems to be plain “evil” according to one panelist. Weirdly enough, I was always drawn to Iago. I even played Iago in a short skit during a Shakespeare class I took as an undergrad. That doesn’t mean that the panelist wasn’t allowed to hold her own opinion, but it just shows that these things vary from reader to reader.

The most important thing is that your character is well-rounded, if they are bad, good, or somewhere in between. Hannah, who not only writes but teaches creative writing at Columbia University and edits One Story offered up her five-point plan for creating well-rounded characters.

  1. Costume (What do they physically look like?)
  2. Superpower (What are they good at?)
  3. Kryptonite (What’s one thing that could destroy them?)
  4. Backstory (Where did they come from?)
  5. Quest/Diabolical Plan (What do they want?)


Love it or hate it, but I thought this how-to guide was pure genius. Hannah also provided other bits of advice for creating characters who are more sympathetic, like zooming out and showing more of their life or stopping for a moment to list the five senses that the characters is experiencing in a particular scene. More than likely, one of them will be evocative. Put it in the story.

I’ll end this post on two notes. (And I hope you forgive my inability to remember which panelist said what. This panel was packed. I sat in the back, unable to actually see over everyone in front of me.) “These beings are constructed with words—that’s all they are,” one panelist said. “They dwell inside us—the characters—the closeness is what is transferred to the reader.”

And last, for those of you worried that likability equals commercial success, I’ll leave with Ryan’s beautiful words: “Publishers have no fucking clue what to publish. There’s no conceivable way for publishers to know your book won’t sell because they didn’t publish it. We’re picking horses. Checking the author’s teeth. It’s a gamble. Something that’s “commercial” doesn’t always sell. So you might as well fucking write it.”

Poetry. Pure poetry.


  1. Amanda Riggle

    Iago is one of my favorite characters. I tend to be drawn to really well constructed villains, and Iago definitely falls under that category.

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