Today I’m excited to welcome Ken Liu to the blog to discuss unlikeable characters! I always feel like I end up liking the characters you aren’t supposed to like, so I couldn’t resist reading what Ken had to say about the writing process for such a character. Ken’s newest book, The Wall of Storms, is out now!
– by Ken Liu
In most of my short fiction, I’ve relied on protagonists who are likable in some way. It made sense to create characters who were easy to empathize, whose struggles the reader could connect with without a lot of explanations and justifications, and whose ideals and motivations, while complicated, fit into common interpretive frameworks.
Naturally, I wanted to try something different for my novels.
In The Wall of Storms, one of my favorite characters is Empress Jia, and she is not a likable character. She schemes and plots for most of the book, often bringing suffering and harm to characters who are likable. She doesn’t bother to explain herself to her enemies, and so even the moments of her heroism can be seen—not without good reason—as mere instances of self-serving propaganda. She doesn’t focus her life on love (either of family or otherwise); instead, she is almost single-mindedly dedicated to power: to obtaining it, to wielding it, to protecting it from anyone who would try to take it away from her. She is ruthless in the pursuit of her own (often opaque) goals, and she doesn’t care who’s harmed in the process. From time to time, she speaks of ideals, but she is not a gifted orator, and so her speeches come across as … lacking.
Yet she is the one who manages to save the day, the one who leads her people through their gravest threat. She is the survivor, the one who madkes the critical decision and has to live with the consequences, even if most fear her and demonize her rather than love her.
She is, in other words, very much like a modern political figure thrust into an epic fantasy setting.
One of the themes of The Dandelion Dynasty is the ways in which political mythmaking can often be more important than political reality. The Grace of Kings can be read as a competition between two political myths, as embodied in two larger-than-life figures. Kuni Garu presents a myth of political progress, of positive change motivated by the vision of a more just Dara for all. His opponent, Mata Zyndu, presents a myth of cyclical stability, of restoration to a simpler, less turbulent status quo ante in which everyone knew their place. Mata Zyndu is consumed by his myth, and sacrifices himself on its altar without ultimately understanding why. While Kuni always operates with an understanding that the story he tells is only a myth that must deviate from the pragmatic concerns of real governance, he sincerely believes that the myth is a worthy vision to aspire to.
Both are likable in their own ways: flawed figures whose failings can be forgiven in the metaphorical logic of mythic narratives. They hew to the classic vision of heroes as human beings who are just a little bit closer to the gods than mere mortals.
Empress Jia, on the other hand, embodies a very different sort of political myth. It is intellectually possible to understand that her vision of civilian control of the military, of replacing the fragile bonds of personal loyalty of warlords to a charismatic sovereign with lasting structures of a self-interested bureaucracy dedicated to the machinery of state, may perhaps be desirable. Yet this isn’t a myth that arouses the passions. It doesn’t hold much emotional appeal to the masses. The only way she can make it come true is through ruthless political machinations and carefully calculated plots that she cannot (and feels no need to) explain to those around her.
At a very simplistic level, Empress Jia embodies a dilemma that is often attributed to modern politics: good, sensible policies cannot be sold to the public because they do not hold the kind of intuitive appeal craved by most of us, driven by our primitive (but no less legitimate) emotions. In order to implement such policies, either a charismatic leader must sell them as something else or faceless elites must sneak them in through the backdoor, taking advantage of the political ignorance of the populace. Often the most sensible policies are not the most emotionally appealing, and the most visionary politicians are not the most likable.
It is a challenge to hang the weight of the narrative on such a character. I’m not sure what “success” means in this context: if readers dislike her, have I “succeeded”? If they do not, have I “failed”? But I do know that the political mythmaking in The Wall of Storms is, because of her, also much more interesting.
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