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Seven Characters You Love to Hate…Or Hate to Love


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Thrillers are so much fun to read, and to write. Since I started in this business, there was always the one cardinal rule that you couldn’t break: your characters are to be likeable, at all costs.

Well, that’s no fun. Especially in this genre.

If I were writing romance, I would absolutely be sure that my main character was quirky-yet-loveable, and their love interest was possibly damaged from heartbreak but had a heart of gold themselves. Hijinks ensue, they fall in love despite themselves, and have a happily ever after. That’s the formula. That works. 

For thrillers? Give me some nasty characters. As long as they don’t kick puppies, I’m here for the unlikeable character. Thrillers, suspense, and mystery usually revolve around the worst of the worst. Scandal, murder, cheating, backstabbing, and secrets. Do we need someone to root for? Sure. Does that mean that we have to hate the antagonist? I don’t know…maybe? Maybe not.

When I wrote It Could Be Anyone, I made Trevor Vaughn the most vile, sleazy, off-putting character I could conjure. And the bridal party? Well, they’ve got issues too, and the entire book revolves around the awful secrets they want to keep hidden. Why didn’t I make them perfect? Because it was more fun this way. It’s fiction. Not to mention (no spoilers here, you find out early!) Trevor dies halfway through page one. Then, the reader finds out how he’d been blackmailing the entire bridal party, and you begin to hate him in particular, despite the other issues the friends have. Isn’t knowing he got his comeuppance half the fun in hating him? And then, hopefully the other half is figuring out who’d had enough of his shenanigans and pulled the proverbial trigger.

With that, I’d like to showcase some despicable characters that I loved to read.

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JOE GOLDBERG, You, by Carline Kepnes

Well, well, well, what do we have here? An obsessive compulsive stalking murderer! Someone who invents scenarios in his head and freaks out if they don’t go according to his plan. He’s the one who wants to control everything and everyone around him, and if you question him, or God forbid, cross him, you’re dead. But…he’s witty. He’s smart. He’s charming. He’s well-read. He’s likeable, even while being completely unlikeable. I’ve devoured all three books in the You series and I’m salivating waiting for the fourth.

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AMBER PATTERSON, The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine

Amber is such a schemer that she invents a way to insert herself into the life of Daphne Parrish, a rich, beautiful do-gooder with a perfect family. Despite coming from nothing, Amber convinces herself that she should not only have that kind of life, but that she deserves Daphne’s life. Amber lies, steals, goes after Daphne’s husband, her foundation, her children…but did I dislike her? No way. Give me more! Did I want her to win? Also no way, but why does hating her have to be bad? A morally grey character is the hallmark of this genre, and for me, this one was the OG of thrillers. 

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OLIVIA PETROV, One Of Us Is Dead, Jeneva Rose

The points of view leading up to the introduction of Olivia had me cringing for her—I just knew I was going to hate her. But man, oh man, once we get inside her head, there’s a carnival of toxicity going on in there. No wonder Kirkus called this book “sublimely bitchy.” Olivia was catty, manipulative, superior, and a terrible friend, even though everyone (including her) knew she was a fake friend. That being said, I looked forward to her chapters even more, because I knew I was going to get some laugh-out-loud quote or action from this vile, awful, wonderful, hilarious, brilliantly written character. Five stars for her!

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JENNIFER SCARBOROUGH, Chloe Cates Is Missing, Mandy McHugh

Move over Kris Jenner. And then take two steps to the left. And then keep on moving. There is no match for this terrible excuse for a momager. When her daughter goes missing, Jennifer is seemingly more concerned with documenting the tragedy online—the way she’s documented Chloe’s life online—than getting to the bottom of it. She’s terrible not only to Chloe, but to her son, her husband, and the lead detective on the case. With zero redeeming qualities, why do I love to hate her? Captivating writing. I was at the edge of my seat waiting to see how badly things would end for her and sometimes, hating the character can make the reader love the book so much more.

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JULES WORTHINGTON-SMITH, For The Best, Vanessa Lillie

Jules has been named a person of interest in a murder investigation, but she was blackout drunk when it happened. While attempting to clear her name, she never learns from her mistake and keeps herself hopped up on wine, gin, cooking sherry—whatever she can get her hands on, consequences of her alcoholism be damned. Why did I love this terrible character? She was written to be this way, and the reader will sympathize with her past while wincing at her behavior. And when you root for someone like that to solve the case against her, you’re in for a wild love/hate relationship.

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OLIVER PARK, Bath Haus, PJ Vernon

Oh, Oliver, why? At first, I didn’t like Oliver at all. I didn’t understand why he chose to do the things he did, like cheating on his partner Nathan. But as the story went on, I began to empathize with him when his background was slowly revealed. That, and the cracks in his seemingly perfect life with his seemingly perfect partner came to the surface. Still, he made one bad decision after the next, and despite me rooting for him, I wanted to crawl into the book and shake him. A great multi-dimensional character the reader will want to slap silly and snuggle with at the same time.

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EAST HOUSE SEVEN, In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, Ashley Winstead

As the saying goes, I saved the best for last, and this choice sums up the entire reason for this article. Except for Coop, there was not one likeable character in this book. However, it was by far and away my favorite read of 2021! All the characters were liars, backstabbers, and cheats who did everything and anything they could to further their own agendas. And one of them murdered another member of the group! Sounds terrible, right? Wrong. I was absolutely obsessed reading about this group of friends, and all the drama that came with them, during college and ten years later at the reunion. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and I always recommend this book to readers who are looking to love and hate at the same time.

Who is your favorite awful character?

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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