So, it’s all going on in the UK at the moment. A national figure has just died, and as expected, opinions are divided. Depending on your politics, you could be in mourning, or at a street party, downloading Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, or being disgusted that people are trying to get it to the top of the charts. Granted, some people are indifferent, but the level of national anger, hate, affection and respect on display is impressive.
It makes me wonder how hard it would be to create a fictional character that fosters the same kind of division amongst their peers.
No one would really mourn the demise of my antagonist. Oh, he has his followers, and they would be royally miffed that their guy isn’t in charge anymore, but no one would really care on an emotional level. There is another character in the series who is more complex; both hated and loved in equal measure. (In short, he’s the character equivalent of Marmite). If anyone was going to be the character who his fellow characters loved or loathed, it would be him.
I’ve been thinking about how I can ramp up this characters dual status as villain and hero. How do you create a character that some love and others hate?
Give them a controversial goal: something radical that will alienate people, while also attracting support from many others.
Make them practical rather than empathic: A must happen to reach B, no matter how anyone feels about it.
Give them tunnel vision: they see the goal, they know what they have to do to get there, but they don’t consider what impact their choices will have on others.
Give them strong, unshakable values: and make these come through on the page.
No regrets: these people don’t change, they are who they are.
Make them stubborn, unyielding and infallible: depending on the attributes of the other characters, they’ll either admire these traits, or find them highly annoying.
Use isolation: the character I have in mind is in a leadership position, but unlike other leaders in the book, he doesn’t keep people close to him. He appreciates loyalty (in fact he demands it), but he keeps people at arm’s length. No one can really get close to him.
The truth is characters like this are often a product of their circumstances. Leaders are frequently polarising figures, but not many inspire cults of love and hatred in equal measure. I’ve noticed that the character I’m writing about can’t be described as ‘one of us’ by any of the main characters. No one can reach him. Maybe that’s the key. If the characters can’t get close to him, they can’t know him, just admire or revile him for his words and actions.