Writing the “unlikeable” character

Initially unlikable, but utterly loveable―Elle from Legally Blonde

I’m currently writing my fifth book and my sixth main character―the maths doesn’t add up, because one book has three main characters and two books have the same main character. Anyway …

I am hyper aware that my current main character is, based on her role as a supporting character in another book, “unlikeable”―so much so, that when I mentioned to a friend who I was writing about, she cringed.

So, why write this character? Why give her a whole book?

In short, it’s because I love her.

I love the hard, prickly exterior she uses to mask a lifetime of being terrified of vulnerability. I love that, once she does care about someone, she is fiercely loyal and generous. I love that she is feisty and bold, independent and resourceful.

I love that, just like the rest of us, she is complex and a mass of contradictions, and that there are clear reasons why she is like she is.

I am about 80% into the book, and I’m enjoying watching her grow. There are moments she has, where she realises something about herself, or where her heart fills, and I am proud of her―this imaginary person.

And I’m realising as I write, that the through-line of this book is compassion―for oneself, for others. She may not be likeable to every reader right away, but as the layers strip away, she is/becomes a beautiful human being. How many times have we met someone who irked us, and through compassion, we’ve realised that there is more going on than their exterior, that we could love them or let them into our lives?

I’ve said before that I know my books won’t be for every reader. My first three books are about the Parsons sisters, Sarah and Cat. For some readers, these characters read as “immature”―”how can these women be in their thirties?”―and for those readers, Sarah and Cat are unlikeable because of their immaturity. But I stand by them as believable, because in many ways, Sarah is a lot like a thirty-something Sandy―sometimes whiny, often witty, confused about love, and trying to find her way.

But what’s important to me as a writer, is that these realistic, perhaps unlikeable women, transform. I want my books to be about growing, learning, opening the heart, and transformation.

And in real life, imagine how dull it would be if every person we met was instantly likeable, if no one rubbed us up the wrong way, or disagreed with us, or challenged us to see ourselves in a new light. How would we grow? How would we develop compassion and understanding? I posit that we wouldn’t.

So, even if you initially find a character unlikeable, give them a chance to reveal themselves, to become their true, loveable selves―just like Elle.



My name is Sandy and I am an author

I met with a financial advisor once – once. When he asked about my long-term plans (career, finances, retirement), I replied that I would probably never truly retire, because one day I’d be an author and I would continue to write ’til the day I stopped breathing.

He laughed at me. Out loud. Then he tilted his head and gave me a pitying look. I asked him to leave and went back to my desk and wrote a chapter.

That was in 2001.

I finished that manuscript, a travel biography of my year as a Contiki Tour Manager, then stuck it in a drawer. For years.

I dusted it off once and gave it to a writer friend. “This should be a novel,” she said, so I started turning it into a novel. In late 2012, I got 70000 words into a re-write, then queried it to an agent in Australia. He loved the first three chapters and immediately asked for the rest.

“This isn’t your first book,” he said on the phone a few days later. “It’s good – you’re an excellent writer – but you’re not Liane Moriarty. There are too many narratives, too many characters. Go and write a single narrative – a simple story. Then come back to me.”

Encouraged, I did.

Mining my own (sometimes interesting) life, I turned my true-life love story into a novel. I wrote You Might Meet Someone about a woman in her late-thirties, who – post-breakup – is fed up with men and takes herself on holiday to Greece, sailing the Cyclades Islands. Everyone tells her how she might meet someone – so condescending and unhelpful – but she just wants to travel and soak up the briny air and sunshine. Of course, she does meet someone – make that two someones.

(Aside: in real life, there was only one someone and he is still my someone.)

I went back to the agent. “Hi, do you remember me?” – that sort of thing. He did and said he’d read the first three chapters. Loved them and later that day, he asked for the rest. The next morning, well before I’d had my first cup of tea, I got the call. He’d read it twice and loved it. ‘Eat, Sail, Love,’ he called it.

He represented me for a year – per our contract – to no avail. No publishing deal. In retrospect, my synopsis and pitch were ‘off’, but my agent thought I should add some ‘danger’ to the book – apparently, danger was selling at the time. I wondered how I could do that. How could I turn a travel romcom into a book with danger? We parted ways amicably and I put the book in a (metaphorical) drawer. That was 2015.

In 2016 Ben and I had been together nearly 10 years and we decided to celebrate our real-life ‘meet cute’ with another sailing trip around the Greek Islands with the same skipper.

On return from that wondrous trip, I was inspired to pull out the book and give it another pass. “Why don’t you self-publish on Kindle?” asked my supportive love. I percolated on that question for a short while, gave the book a final edit, handed it off to a colleague with editorial chops, collaborated with a cover artist in London, and – bottom lip firmly between my teeth – published it on Kindle.

My book was out there. I was an author.

Fast forward to our sabbatical in 2018 and I wrote the sequel (also published on Kindle), then book three in the series. Sarah (books one and two) and her sister, Cat (book three), came to life. The men they loved, their travel adventures, their friendships, their internal battles, their journeys to love, came to life.

Concurrently, I soaked up as much as I could about author life. I took a course on building my author profile and engaged with fellow authors on Twitter. I read widely – both within my genre and about the business of being an author.

As I embarked on the indie author path, I tweaked and honed and finessed my pitches to book bloggers, agents and publishers. I joined author communities. I sought and gave feedback. I engaged beta readers and I became a beta reader – I learned what a beta reader is and why they are so important to the writing process. I entered contests and Twitter pitches, and was featured on book blogs and UKRomChat (hi, lovelies – I adore you so much!). I even did my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and smashed it, writing 70000 words of my third book in three weeks.

I worked my little Aussie bum off.

Along the way, I made friends with some incredibly talented, generous, and supportive people – most of whom I’ve yet to meet face to face. I became part of the writing community.

Excitingly, my blood, sweat and lots of tears – a.k.a. ‘hard work’ – is now paying off. I have a new agent, the inimitable Lina Langlee of the Kate Nash Literary Agency in the UK, and she has secured me a two-book deal (!) with a soon-to-be-named imprint of a soon-to-be-named (big five) publishing house.

It’s happening. I am being published – by a world-renowned publisher.

I am embarking on a long-distance, long-term relationship with an agent who loves my work and believes in me, and a publishing house who described my writing as ‘beautifully sumptuous and evocative’.

So, as I commence writing my fourth book, as I assemble the dream cast for the movies of my books, as I continue to work in a field I (also) love and am great at – adult education – I am humbled, excited, terrified, vindicated, grateful, and … well, I am an author.

p.s. Doesn’t Lina Langlee have the best name ever?

p.s.p.s. If you read either of my first two books while they were out in the world, thank you. They’ll be back. (pssst, please leave a review on Goodreads)

p.s.p.s.p.s. Thank you to William (Bill) Aicher of the Indie Author CoalitionAimee Brown, fellow romance author and leader amongst women; DC Wright-Hammer, who shines the spotlight on fellow authors; Rebecca Langham, who started #AusWrites on Twitter (often the highlight of my day); Jeanna, Eilidh, Lucy and all my fellow authors of UKRomChat on Twitter (always the highlight of my romance author week); Allison and Valerie from the Australian Writers’ Centre; and Jen and Kerry from The Business of Books. Thank you Lindsey Kelk, my favourite author who (actually) replies to my emails. And thank you to my friend, Mike Curato, who took a leap of faith to become a best-selling artist and author.

p.s.p.s.p.s.p.s. Thank you Ben and my sis and my family and Lins and Jen and all my lovely friends. x



Guest Blogger (My Awesome Mother): Changing the face of teaching in the 70s and 80s

My sister and I grew up with young parents. Mum and Dad were 21 when I was born and 25 when my sister came along. They were both primary school teachers. 

We grew up in the 70s, surrounded by 20-somethings – our parents and a slew of aunties and uncles – actual and honorary. 

When I was in Year 2, I changed schools so I could attend the school where my mother taught. I gained more aunties, friends of my mother, women who I looked up to, women who were kind to me and let me be my precocious self.

They – and my mother –  taught me that working in a professional role was normal for a woman. I had no idea then the type of blatant sexism they faced. Embarrassingly, I had no real idea what they faced until recently when my mum sent my sister and me an email.

This is what she wrote about her early years in the teaching profession:

I know you love stories about the women who work hard to make equality a reality. As you probably know, when your dad and I started our careers, women earned less, even though we were both teachers and had started working at the same time. The gap was significant – about $5000 per year.

Female teachers had to wear dresses, or skirts and high heels. No pants. Women were not entitled to maternity leave. Instead, we could resign and then re-apply for our jobs when we wanted to come back to work. I was fortunate enough to have 3 months at home with both of you before I had to go back to work. In staff rooms, we had assigned seats. There was an obvious and patriarchal hierarchy and at my first school. The men sat together and the women sat together.

Early on, I became a union member to help expedite a shift to equality.

What I did:

1) I worked diligently at my first school to ensure the female deputy principal allowed women to wear pant suits, especially with those who taught smaller children, and needed to sit on the floor at times.

Eventually, this policy passed and we could wear pant suits – on the proviso we did not just wear slacks and a top. When other schools found out, women there were allowed to wear pant suits a those schools as well. I suppose those women spoke up about the practically of it, like I did.

2) In the staff room, I refused to sit in ‘my spot’. I kept sitting in different chairs, because I knew that women should be able to talk to whoever they wanted, including the male staff members. Eventually, everyone moved about daily, and ignored the assigned seats policy. It was much more pleasant – we were all teachers, after all.

3) At another school, I worked hard to convince the principal that I could teach Science to all the senior primary students (Year 4, 5, and 6). At that time, this was considered a man’s job. I was successful; I got to teach Science.

4) As a Union Rep, I lobbied for better pay, better conditions, and more opportunities for women. I marched and I went on strike, along with many of the men and women I worked with. We lost pay, but we didn’t care. Our cause was too important.

5) At a rural school, only boys were allowed to wear pants, while girls had to wear skirts, even during the cold weather of winter. After many meetings with the administration and with the Parents and Citizens’ Committee (the P&C), we had a win and girls could also wear pants to school.

6) I initiated non-gender-biased clubs at every school I worked at. If girls wanted to learn about science, or if boys wanted to learn to sew, great. Any interested student was welcome and encouraged to develop their skills and interests.

7) At a school I taught at in Queensland, some sports were girls only or boys only. I fought to change that by working closely with the administration and the P&C.

8) As I taught in a lot of rural schools, there was often the issue of not having enough of one gender to fill a sports team. So, I introduced mixed teams at these schools. Then other schools started to do this. I was criticised, but again I didn’t care. Students were able to compete in sports that with other schools – that was what mattered.

9)  For too many years, women were not considered competent or skilled enough to teach upper grades. I rejected this idea, and was fortunate to have support from many of my principals. I would ask for an upper grade, so I could prove that women could competently teach those grades.

I worked very hard to get equal pay equal and equal opportunities for women over the years.  It wasn’t just me, but I was there, putting up my hand and speaking up. I was called names, told off, and ‘put in my place’. But that didn’t matter.  I believe everyone deserves the chance to be equal in all things.

My conquests were small and some would say insignificant, but change happens when individuals – many individuals – stand up. The voice of one becomes the voice of many.

Thank you, mum, for leading the way, for taking a stand and surrounding us with wonderful female role models.

Thank you also to our dad, who is one of the most fervent feminists I know and who was an outstanding teacher. And thank you to our step-mum, who has only just retired after nearly 40 years as a teacher, and has also been a wonderful professional role model.

Side note: I taught for 14 years before changing professional direction in 2009. My sister is still a teacher – and so is her husband. #familyprofession