No Matter What You Are*

One of the many challenges that writers face is creating main characters who are appealing, or at least interesting, but at the same time, are flawed, as we all are. If you’ve ever had the urge to turn to a protagonist and say, ‘Stop it!’, even as you really like the character, you know what I mean. If characters are to be believable, they have to be human: sometimes astute, sometimes oblivious; sometimes really annoying, and lots of times a pleasure to know. Characters who are too perfect simply aren’t relatable. Characters who are thoroughly annoying and irritating can put a reader off the book.

Of course, we all find different character traits endearing and annoying. So it’s not easy for a writer to create a much-loved character who’s also got some very irritating character flaws. But it can happen. And one way authors pull this off is the sidekick/partner who is clear-eyed about those imperfections, but still respects, and even admires, the main character.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson has no illusions about his friend, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, where we first meet this duo, he’s quite specific about the subject areas Holmes knows well, and those he doesn’t. He remonstrates with Holmes about his drug use, and he gets annoyed with Holmes now and again. And that’s understandable. After all, if we’re being honest, Holmes has some very irritating traits. Yet Watson is very often astounded by Holmes’ ability to deduce, and he has a great admiration for Holmes’ detective skills. And if you read between the lines, as the saying goes, it’s not hard to see that he and Holmes are friends. This shows the reader Holmes’ positive qualities, and it’s arguably part of the reason he has so many fans, even after all these years.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is hardly what you’d call a cheerful, outgoing, friendly sort. He is opinionated, brusque, often rude, and sometimes pedantic. And that’s not to mention his reluctance to be flexible about much of anything. A person could be forgiven for not wanting to spend a lot of time in his company. Just ask his employee/partner Archie Goodwin. Of course, Archie’s not perfect himself, but he is well aware of his boss’ shortcomings, and quick to point them out. That openness makes for some witty narrative and dialogue, At the same time, Archie’s equally aware of Wolfe’s detective skills. He knows Wolfe’s brilliant, and he’s seen Wolfe’s ability to be compassionate in his way.

M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin is a former advertising executive who retired to the Cotswolds, and who now owns a private investigation agency. She’s certainly not to everyone’s liking; she’s bitter, she can be rude, and she isn’t the most patient person. That’s not to mention her on/off feelings towards her ex-husband, James Lacey, which some people find irritating. But Beaton doesn’t make her a one-sided character. She has her vulnerable moments, and she has her share of courage and lots of determination. She also has a team of co-workers, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Bill Wong, all of whom work with her on her cases. Agatha may have some annoying qualities, but the people in her life see beyond all that. That, in turn, helps the reader to see that she has more than one dimension. Little wonder this series has so many fans, even though Agatha can be – erm – a bit much at times.

Carol O’Connell’s Detective Kathleen Mallory would likely be difficult for anyone to really like, at least at first. She’s been emotionally scarred by her childhood, and is, so some think, a sociopath. Her adoptive father, Detective Louis Moskowitz, found her living on the streets when she was eleven, and did his best to give her a good home. That doesn’t mean she’s completely functional, though. In fact, many would say quite the opposite. She doesn’t have the sense of empathy that most of us have, and she can’t easily form relationships with others. So why is this series as popular as it is? Why do so many people find Kathleen Mallory interesting? Part of it is that she has strong detective skills, especially when it comes to computers and other technology. She gets the job done. But part of it is also that there are people in her life (Detective Riker, for instance, who has been her mentor and friend; and Charles Butler, who fell in love with her) who see more than what Mallory shows on the surface. Those characters show another side of Mallory that invites readers to cheer for her, even though she can be very hard to be around at times.

And, of course, I couldn’t do a post about characters who can be irritating without mentioning Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans know, he can be a lot of annoying things: obnoxious, rude, profane, and more. He doesn’t often show a lot of regard for others’ feelings, and he isn’t at all interested in the niceties of ‘getting along’ in society. And yet, as Hill has shown us, there are other sides of him. There’s his professional skill (he is an excellent detective). There’s also his way of being loyal to his team, even as he sometimes berates them (‘I’m allowed to insult him, but God help you if you do!’). Dalziel’s team is very loyal to him, too, and accept (well, sometimes endure) his ways, even as they get thoroughly fed up at times. The dynamics show the reader that, as irritating as Dalziel can be, he’s also a fascinating character with good qualities.

And that’s the thing about some very annoying characters. They may be irritating, even off-putting at times. But a skilled author can show other sides of those characters, especially through the eyes of those who know them. And that invites the reader to care about that character. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

ps Oh, the ‘photo? Our Indy had the annoying (to him) habit of ousting our other dog, Mr. MeToo, from their napping mat. He was devoted to her, anyway…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Badfinger’s No Matter What.

 


14 thoughts on “No Matter What You Are*

  1. Interesting post, Margot! I think you’re quite right – it’s that balance that the author has to get right, making the character flawed enough to be interesting, but not so flawed that we don’t empathise a bit. Maybe that’s why some of the GA detectives survived and others fell by the wayside….

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    1. Thanks, KBR! You make a really interesting point about GA detectives. I’d have to really think about that (and I will!) but certainly the ones that have survived have faults as well as redeeming qualities. I’m thinking, for instance, of Poirot, who has his share of faults and foibles, but also has good qualities as well. That’s a really interesting insight!

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  2. Very insightful post, Margot. Never saw the sidekick’s usefulness in this manner. I immediately thought of Poirot and Hastings. Also love how Della and Drake (though they are hardly sidekicks) sometimes gang up against Mason and bring him down a peg or two.

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    1. Thank you, Neeru. And you know, I hadn’t thought of Della and Drake that way, but you have a very good point. They show that Mason has more than one side to his character, and they remind the reader that he’s a human being. Thanks for that addition.

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  3. Nero Wolfe and Archie fit the theme of this perfectly and I enjoyed your other examples also. I think this also fits the time of DCI Lloyd and DI Judy Hill in Jill McGown’s series also. Throughout the series they have an off and on relationship, and clearly care a lot about each other, but Lloyd is a difficult character, not easy to get along with. When possible, Judy tries to help with that.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. You know, you make an interesting point about Judy Hill. She and Lloyd have an interesting relationship, don’t they? As you say, it’s off-again/on-again, although even during the ‘off’ times, they do care about each other. She sees past Lloyd’s less attractive personality traits, I think, and that gives the reader some insights into him, too. Thanks for adding that series in here.

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  4. Interesting selection! Three of my favourites – Holmes, Dalziel and Nero Wolfe – and two I can’t stick at any price – Mallory and Agatha Raisin. Thinking about what the difference is, I wonder if it’s that the first three have likeable sidekicks, whereas the other two don’t, in quite the same way at least? I know I prefer Watson to Holmes and Archie to Nero, although with Dalziel I do like him for himself as well as for Wieldy and Pascoe. Or – and I really hope it’s not this – I notice the three I like are men and the two I hate are women! Perhaps I’m conditioned to think that being obnoxious is more acceptable in males… oh dear, I’m going to need extra chocolate to recover from that horrifying piece of self-analysis… 😉

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    1. That’s a really interesting question, FictionFan! Do we accept obnoxiousness in males more than in females? I need to think about that, too. And I always think chocolate helps with the reflection process… 😉 Now, you also make a really interesting point about the likeable sidekick. As you say, Watson, Archie Goodwin, and Pascoe/Wield are sympathetic characters, and it’s not hard to see their points of view. Without that sympathetic sidekick, it may be harder to see the good sides of an obnoxious character. Hmm… it might be a combination of factors, too, and it’s not trivial that we all find different traits obnoxious. So, what annoys you no end might not be a problem for someone else, and vice versa. I think as with most complex questions like this, it doesn’t have a unidimensional answer.

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      1. You know, Margot, I’ve been thinking about it and I can’t think of any female ‘tecs who have a Watson, or any kind of traditional sidekick. Can you? The likes of Maeve Kerrigan has Josh, but he’s always jostling to be the main man and in a sense it’s more as if she’s his sidekick rather than the other way round. And most of the police female ‘tecs I can think of have regular underling or superiors, but I can’t think of a narrator sidekick who wholeheartedly admires and accepts the superiority of the female detective, the way Watson or Hastings do.

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      2. That is a really interesting question, FictionFan! I’ve been thinking about it, too, and I actually tried to come up with some for this post. But there really aren’t many. Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli, for instance, is well-respected as a great detective, but she doesn’t really have a sidekick in the traditional sense. Her niece is her chronicler, and I suppose you could call her a sidekick, but still… And Swati Kaushal’s Nikki Marwah is a police superintendent, so she has a team that serves as sidekicks. There’s also Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, who has sidekicks (a few, in fact). But those characters aren’t what you’d call obnoxious (they may not be everyone’s cuppa, but they aren’t outright rude, etc..). Hmm….I know there are others. You’ve added a really fascinating dimension to this post, so thanks. I need to keep thinking about this.

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  5. It’s an interesting post Margot. If I can’t relate to the main character I struggle caring about a book. Some characters could entertain doing their laundry…. Block’s Keller and Scudder. Others send me to sleep. I don’t want to read about Peter Perfect.

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    1. I don’t, either, Col. I find it very hard to relate to characters who are that one-sided; they’re not interesting and can get completely tiresome. I agree with you, too, about Lawrence Block. That man could draw me in with a shopping list, and his Scudder and Keller are really appealing characters, even when they do things that annoy me.

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