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13 Ways to Engage Your Reader with a Despicable Character

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

I’m not one who believes that character likability is key to winning over the reader—for me, “relatability” is more important—but there is a character in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize) whose lack of moral compass challenges even my liberal stance.

After a night out with his college friends, Hugo has sex with the woman that Olly (his friend and the designated driver, no less) has admitted he’s in love with. Later, he hides near a phone booth and listens, amused, to Olly’s private despair as he begs for the return of her love. He’s slept with the mother of another of those friends and when with him, thinks about her naked. He tells a regular bedmate, a Brazilian nurse, that he’ll never introduce her to his parents because they don’t have that kind of relationship, and wonders “why women are uglier once they’re unpeeled, encrusted, and had.”

He steals and sells the valuable stamp collection of a former mentor suffering from Alzheimer’s and banks the money under an assumed name. He regularly fleeces another friend at cards, assuming his rich family will refill his coffers, resulting in such debt that the friend drives his last precious asset, a mint condition 1969 Aston Martin, over a cliff to end his shameful existence. Hugo’s reaction to hearing the news, after disbelief, is about the car: “I could weep. All that money.”

This character is a reprobate. What does it say about me that I cared about his story journey? Don’t judge me…yet. Suspecting mad skills, I had to go back and figure out how Mitchell won my interest.

1. First, there’s the character’s name: Hugo Lamb. Seriously—a huge lamb? Subliminally, the author is promising that the character has soft parts.

2. Hugo appreciates, in great detail, the work of 20th-century British classical composer Benjamin Britten.

3. He is entertaining. When he sees a beautiful woman in church:

The Kraken in my boxer shorts awakes.

4. His intelligence is on display during a long, off-the-cuff argument on the nature of power.

5. When it suits him, he’s loyal and protective. An undergrad in politics, he poses as a postgrad law student to warn off aggressors that threaten his group of friends.

6. The reason he knows about the brigadier’s stamp collection is because he visits him regularly in the nursing home to read to him.

7. Someone appreciates Hugo for who he is. At one point, Olly’s “girlfriend” tells Hugo:

“The problem with the Ollies of the world is their niceness. Niceness drives me mental.”

You, Hugo,” she kisses my earlobe, “are a sordid, low-budget French film. The sort you’d stumble across on TV at night. You know you’ll regret it in the morning, but you keep watching anyway.”

8. He is self-aware:

I get up and go out through the back door. The cold air shocks my skin as I go, “Shoo, shoo!” to the cat. The feline hunter leaps onto the garden shed. It watches me. Its tail sashays. The mangled bird is twitching in the black cat’s mouth.

I hear the boomy scrape of an airplane.

A twig snaps. I am intensely alive.

~and later, with the Brazilian nurse~

Tell her it’s over, Hugo the Wise advises, but Hugo the Horny loves a uniform.

9. He exposes his existential angst:

The brigadier I knew has left his bombed-out face, leaving me alone with the clock, shelves of handsome books nobody ever reads, and one certainty: that whatever I do with my life, however much power, wealth, experience, knowledge, or beauty I’ll accrue, I, too, will end up like this vulnerable old man. When I look at Brigadier Reginald Philby, I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.

10. He can be generous. He knows how to perfectly gift-wrap a box and helps a stranger who is fumbling at the task. He gives two twenties to a homeless man so he can afford to stay in a hostel. He offers his coat to his dad, worried about him running a quick errand in the cold.

10. He has his own standards. He refuses to join in with his friends who unknowingly pick up prostitutes, and when their pimp shows up the next morning, leaves them (taking along the money he’s won off them) to face the consequences of their naïveté.

11. Logical and decisive, Hugo talks himself through the novel’s more fantastical situations:

Weird shit needs theories and I have three.

12. Hugo’s arc centers on pragmatism and love:

He wonders what real love might be like.

Olly’s laugh is a notch too loud. His pupils have morphed into love-hearts and, for the nth time squared, I wonder what love feels like on the inside because externally it turns you into the King of Tit Mountain.

A periodic cocaine user on vacation in the Alps, Hugo waxes philosophic about love:

“Human beings,” I inhale my wine’s nutmeggy steam, “are walking bundles of cravings… Love is one way to satisfy some of those cravings. But love’s not just the drug; it’s also the dealer. Love wants love in return, am I right, Olly? Like drugs, the high looks divine, and I envy the users. But when the side effects kick in—jealousy, the rages, grief—I think, count me out. Elizabethans equated love with insanity. Buddhists view it as a brat throwing a tantrum at the picnic of the calm mind.”

He falls for an otherwise unremarkable “skinny” woman named Holly who taught herself French, can ski gracefully, and can handle herself while serving a barroom full of men. She exhibits no particular interest in him. He questions himself as he watches her wrap his sprained ankle:

This isn’t lust. Lust wants, does the obvious, and pads back into the forest. Love is greedier. Love wants round-the-clock care; protection; rings, vows, joint accounts; scented candles on birthdays; life insurance. Babies. Love’s a dictator. I know this, yet the blast furnace in my ribcage roars You You You You You just the same, and there’s bugger-all I can do about it. “It’s not too tight?” asks Holly.

“It feels perfect,” I tell her.

Against his own patterns of easy acquisition, he follows her around to prove his interest until they finally sleep together, when he thinks:

“…love is fusion in the sun’s core. Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object. The difference between its presence and absence is the difference between life and death. Experimentally, silently, I mouth I love you to Holly, who breathes like the sea. This time I whisper it, at about the violin’s volume: “I love you.” No one hears, no one sees, but the tree falls in the forest just the same.”

Despite his feelings, the accumulation of Hugo’s sins makes him feel a relationship with Holly is unworkable. I felt the loss. Do you blame me, after the way he spoke of love? Instead, Mitchell’s mind-bendy tale has Hugo accepting a Faustian deal that promises him eternal life. Perhaps his true nature had spoken, because it seems he’s okay with the part that requires him to kill others to provide him with the “black wine” that will keep him alive.

Yet. Decades later, Hugo, who still looks twenty-five, meets up with normally aging Holly again when her life is in peril and—hmm, what happens? In order not to spoil everything for those of you willing to undertake the more than 600 pages of this novel, I’ll simply say that Hugo is still wondering if Holly had ever loved him.

Do you have a character your critique partners have found unlikable? Do you see any techniques here you might use to sway them? What other techniques have you noticed that have made you intrigued by an amoral character?

About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn’s website.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.