Likeable Characters

Last night I was reading Neil Gaiman’s latest blog entry in which he replied to a young writer’s question about creating characters. The questioner felt like their characters were too often contrived plot devices, and they wondered how Neil made his characters so personable and interesting.

Neil’s advice was that characters should be, quite simply, people you find interesting. Whether they’re good or bad is irrelevant, they should be people you’d enjoy sitting down with over a cup of coffee and chatting, getting to know, and learning more about. If you enjoy their company and find them interesting, they’ll be better characters and more enjoyable to read about.

I thought I’d give this a try and began writing about a dwarf’s first night at a local tavern. Dwarves are stereotypically boisterous, Irish, and greatly enjoy alcohol, but to be honest, I’d have no interest in sitting down with such a person. Therefore I thought to make the dwarf more interesting, someone who reads poetry and philosophy, and though I have nothing against beer (and really enjoy it myself), I thought it’d be fun to have a dwarf that’s a teatotaller. This one might prefer milk.

I began to write a scene from the dwarf’s point of view where a drunken man accosted him for turning down a drink the man had bought him, and this was OK, but I thought I’d stretch myself further and pick up the scene from the drunkard’s perspective. Make the dwarf a secondary figure so his actions speak for him rather than an internal monologue.

Unfortunately, the human I created to be the antagonist was not someone I found interesting. I was quickly able to come up with a backstory for the guy, an explanation for his temperment, behaviour, etc… but I didn’t like him at all. And as such, I think the scene suffered. It will have to be rewritten if I am to use it further.

Is it possible to have antagonists we like, or at least find interesting? Jaqueline Carey does this masterfully in Kushiel’s Legacy, particularly in the character of Melisande, but I haven’t learned how yet. Does anyone have any advice or experience in regards to interesting antagonists?