Micro-Lesson | Creating (Un)likable Characters with Michael Shilling

Posted Thu, 7/02/2015 - 1:52pm by  |  Category:

Micro-LessonHi writers! This is a little taste of what we’ll be doing in my summer class, Creating (Un)likable Characters, which runs Wednesdays, July 8-August 12, at the really likable time of 5-7.

First, an example of a story we’ll discuss. It may look familiar.


“TRUE! —nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

We’re going to be looking at the ways writers create characters that you may not like, that you may even dislike, but whom you can’t help rooting for and find fascinating. One way we’ll try and figure out how to do this is by looking at how prose elements—syntax, diction, and rhythm, for example—create a pleasing experience and thereby allow us a way into these unlikeable characters’ hearts. This piece, which opens Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” has such a music to it that we want to know more. And the more we know, delivered in that lovely way that only Poe can, the more we start to sympathize with this guy. Who’s quite mad. And not at all likable.


Most characters in stories are fundamentally unlikable, full of problems, and acting out. That’s why they’re fun to read about. Who wants to read about well-adjusted people? Problem is, you have to love your characters, no matter how terrible they are. If you don’t—if you are contemptuous of them—your prose will fall flat and no one will care. This is difficult when we write from our experience, as we model characters after those we may not like, and whom we may hold grudges against. This class is largely about finding the love in your heart for those characters through a number of fun and amusing exercises, and setting them free to be real on the page, free of your biases. We’ll also look at how brilliant writers, such as Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor, did the same.

Imagine a person from your life that you don’t like. That you might even hate. Then imagine them in a situation in which they are nervous and vulnerable, such as a first date or a job interview or a court hearing. Then describe the experience from their point of view. How do you use the elements of prose, like diction, sentence structure, simile/metaphor, and voice, to bring out their vulnerability? Remember, you don’t have to make them lovable. You just have to make them human.