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.