Writing the “unlikeable” character

Cover of A Sunrise over Bali: darkhaired woman standing on a Balinese beach with palm trees, huts, and a temple looking at a beautiful sunrise. Tagline: the adventure of a lifetime awaits

A Sunrise over Bali, the 4th book in the Holiday Romance series, is out next month. I wrote this book in 2020 and while I was writing it, I blogged about writing the ‘unlikeable’ character.

Written May 2020

In Bali, I am hyper aware that my main character is, based on her role as a supporting character in That Night in Paris, “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.

Coming of Age

Last night I watched the film Liberal Arts, which is written and directed by and also starring Josh Radnor from How I met your mother. I am not a huge fan of the show, but it isn’t because I don’t like Radnor, and this film is about as far from the show as you can get. It is really good.

It is considered a coming of age film, which I particularly liked because the protagonist is 35. He returns to his alma mater to farewell his ‘second favorite professor’ who is reluctantly retiring after 37 years of higher education. There are many authentic and authentically awkward moments, which made me wonder how much was scripted and how much evolved organically through improvisation while the cameras were rolling. One of the characters – a Drama major – even notes that life is not scripted; it is just one long improvisation, which may be a clue. Regardless, the acting is lovely.

While studying my own Liberal Arts degree – double major of English Literature and Theater Arts, “just to make sure I was completely unemployable”, as Radnor’s Jessie says of his own education – I was never that good at improvisation. I always preferred scripted performance to the ‘be amazingly clever and witty on the spot’ school of acting. I watched in awe as many of my classmates took the stage time and time again, scriptless, and came up with improvisational gold.

Through the awe, the gnawing nerves ate away at my stomach while I waited my turn on the stage. With a script in hand I felt invincible. With a chair and an empty stage, I got stage fright. In the film, Radnor’s Jessie oscillates between distressed and uncomfortable when he is ‘off-book’. In his personal life he relies too heavily on snippets from the classics and professionally, his trite, seemingly scripted responses have no effect on the young minds he is trying to inspire. It is only when he throws the scripts away that he has any kind of real connection with people and in being authentic, he comes of age.

So, let’s get back to me, the wary improviser. How has that played out in my own life? Well, professionally I am typically a good improviser. I store a lot of information in my head, and my brain tends to know when it is connected to other stored information. If a meeting or a lesson plan or training session goes off on an unexpected tangent, I tend to excel. I can think on my feet and make quick decisions. Professionally, I have had many milestones that have been a ‘coming of age’ and I am looking ahead to the next one.

But what about my personal life? Last night, as I walked home through my neighborhood where I have lived for the past 4 years, I asked myself about my own coming of age. “When was it?” “Has it happened yet?” I have certainly experienced some significant transformations in the past 20 years of my adulthood.

In the film, an almost unrecognizable Zac Efron pontificates about the incredible feat that is a caterpillar turning itself into a butterfly. And he is right; that is amazing if you stop to think about it. At some point I did really think about it, because I have a butterfly tattoo and I chose it for its homage to the idea of transformation. As I watched the scene I reminded myself to remind myself of that fact more often. Transformation is very, very beautiful.
So, as I further ponder my own coming of age, I realize that there have been many moments that define some form of transformation, and that I want there to be many more. Those moments, those decisions, those risks that we take that shape us into a more real, more complete and more beautiful human being, those are the times when we ‘come of age’.

The very exquisite Richard Jenkins, who portrays the reluctant retiree, responds to Jessie’s question, “Do you think of this place as a prison?” with “Every place is a prison if you never leave.” That line resonated with me, because I have an internal kinetic-ness that makes me want to go, well, everywhere. In my life, many of my coming of age moments have been around departures to somewhere new. Moving to LA, moving to London, moving to Sydney, coming here to Seattle four years ago to live with Ben – all highly significant times in my life when I stretched myself, faced my fears and went for it.

These defining moments are different for everyone, however. For me, traveling and living in different places is innate to my contentment, but Jenkins’ line about every place being prison if you don’t leave is not true for everyone.

I know 8 couples who are currently expecting a baby (7 for the first time), and I cannot express how much I admire their selflessness and courage. My sister and brother-in-law became parents for the first time about 15 months ago and I am in awe of how brilliantly they parent my (clever and beautiful) nephew. Talk about a coming of age!

So, back to my questions, “When was my coming of age?” and “Has it happened yet?” The answers are, “Many, many times before,” and “Not yet.”