Nov 18 2013 4:30pm

All is Forgiven?: When Characters Do Bad Things

Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth PhillipsThere are numerous reason why a book doesn’t work for a reader. But one of the most common is that the reader doesn’t have empathy for the character or condone his or her actions. But as many of you have already surmised, perfect characters can be pretty boring. And that is why many authors dare to take risks and create problematic, challenging characters, or characters that make objectionable mistakes.

Author Molly O’Keefe did a post at on Difficult Heroines. She interviewed numerous authors and got their take on difficult heroines. Quoting from the blog, Cecilia Grant stated, “Difficult heroines bring a lot of conflict to a romance, which is always a good thing,” while Sarah Mayberry had a different way of expressing the conundrum: “The challenge, as always, is giving readers the information they need to understand what’s behind the character’s difficult-ness. If that’s even a word.” Caitlin Crews understands the inherent challenge: “The fact is, not everyone is going to like your heroine no matter what you do. But I think readers want to know a heroine’s motivation, and if you give it to them, they’ll follow her to a lot of dark places.”

And I wondered if that is true. I think of myself as pretty nit-picky. I have a very low tolerance for characters who are psychologically unsound, such as the 40-year-old hero that has never had relationship or the overly self-abasing heroine. But I realized that there are many difficult characters or scenarios that worked for me as a reader.

Of all the authors I read, Susan Elizabeth Phillips creates the most outrageous scenarios. But she has an exceptional talent in making me empathize with her character’s motivation. I will be honest, sometimes it takes a while for me to process what they have done and accept the actions. When I first read Ain’t She Sweet, I was shocked at Sugar Beth. Her systematic bullying of half-sister Winnie Davis was staggering:

“The truth is, cupcake, I pretty much made your mother’s life miserable.”

Gigi abandoned Gordon’s ears to gaze up at sugar Beth. “What did you do?”

“Everything I could think of.” Sugar Beth concentrated on dredging the bread so she didn’t have to look at either one of them. “You mother was shy, and I used that to my advantage to make her look bad in from of the other kids. Whenever somebody wanted to be her friend, I found a way to break it up. I made fun of her behind her back. I even found this diary she kept and read it out loud to everybody.”

Hero Colin Byrne’s ignominy in publicly humiliating Sugar Beth is also pretty substantial. Not only does he set up a dinner party to demean her, but he also writes a tell-all book with a thinly disguised character based on Sugar Beth. But what Sugar Beth did to him in the past was atrocious, too.

Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth PhillipsI had grave doubts going into Call Me Irresistible, again by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The ick factor was simmering just under the surface at the thought of a Meg Koranda having sex with Ted Beaudine, her best friend, Lucy Jorik’s ex-fiancé. My thoughts on the girlfriend/family rule are pretty strong. How can someone even think of doing that to a friend. And I couldn't help thinking of the awkwardness later—would Ted look at Lucy and remember making love to her? What would Meg think when Lucy and Ted reminisced about the past? But Ms. Phillips handled my reservations on the subject early on, when Meg call Lucy for permission:

Something’s wrong, all right.” There was no easy way to say this. “What would you think about me hooking up with Ted?”

There was a long silence. “Hooking up? As in—?”


“With Ted?”

“Your former fiancé.”

“I know who he is. You and Ted are a . . .couple?”

“No!” Meg dropped her knees to the floor. “No, not a couple. Never. This is just about sex. And forget it. I’m not exactly thinking clearly right now. I should never have called. God, what was I thinking? This is a total betrayal of our friendship. I shouldn’t have –”

“No! No, I glad you called.” Lucy actually sounded excited. “Oh, Meg this is perfect. Every woman should have Ted Beaudine make love to her.”

“I don’t know about that, but—”She pulled her knees back up. “Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

“Are you kidding?” Lucy sounded almost giddy. “Do you know how guilty I still feel? If he sleeps with you . . You’re my best friend, He’d be sleeping with my best friend! It’ll be like getting absolution from the pope!”

Ted'a not without his own blemishes; he says he is still in love with Lucy. Both Ted and the town are quick to judge Meg, and even put enormous pressure on her to compromise her integrity to keep a wealthy investor happy. But Ted’s motivations are believable as is his transformation.

Secret baby plots are difficult, especially when the heroine doesn’t inform the hero—a major ethical breech. One of my favorite story arcs in The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen is about is about Julia and Sawyer. Julia became pregnant with Sawyer’s baby and when she told him he was not happy:

“Julia, I don’t want a baby,” he finally said.

“Well, it’s too late for that,” she said, trying to laugh.

“Is it?“

”What do you mean?”

“I’m sixteen. He suddenly exploded. “I can’t be a parent! And I’m with Holly. This is the worst thing that could happen to me right now! I have plans.”

Sawyer’s reaction is pretty unforgiveable—a women’s worst nightmare. A man (albeit still a boy) rejecting both her and their child. But the story just works. For some reason it was easy to forgive Sawyer. Julia goes on to have the child and gives it up adoption, a secret she keeps from Sawyer who is under the impression that she “took care of it.” Like Julia, I agreed that Sawyer gave up his right to know that he had a child. And Julia giving up her child—well, that was a no-brainer. Still I loved the fact that Julia dreamed that one day her child would find her:

Maybe one day in the future, baking cakes would bring her daughter—who had a sweet sense like her father—back to Julia. Then she would explain why she gave her up. At the very least, it would carry Julia’s love to her.

Where We Belong by Emily GiffinMarion Caldwell, the heroine from Where We Belong by Emily Giffin is almost the polar opposite of Julia. Not only did she not tell the father of her baby that she was pregnant, she has very mixed emotions when her daughter shows up on her doorstep. She is infused with a sense of elation and joy, but also fear because her current boyfriend knows nothing of this:

More important, I wish he knew my secret. I wish I had told him, suddenly regretting my decision not to tell him...he confessed his own deepest secrets that he plagiarized a paper at Dartmouth and once slept with a stripper at a bachelor party in Vegas. I didn’t judge him—and I don’t believe that he would have judged me. And yet, he might. He might decide that any woman who would give a child isn’t fit to be a mother. At least the mother of his child. He might have a problem, at the very least that I kept a secret from my own father, from the baby’s father.

This complex story filled with life’s compromises and mistakes is so very memorable for its realism, and hope.

Which authors push the limits on their characters’ likability? Share examples of the actions that almost pushed you to your limit, and explain why you were able to accept and understand why they did it?


Leigh Davis, Blogger

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Lee Brewer
1. LeeB.
Thinking back on the SEP books you've mentioned, I don't know if I would accept the characters' behavior in real life, but it is interesting to read about the different scenarios and see how the characters manage to forgive.
2. Alonzi
I LOVE the outrageous characters that abound in the novels of Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She's so good at then turning the tables around and suddenly, the holier-than-thou good guy is made to feel like dirt. I won't finish a book where two lovers fight and the guy has 'retaliatory' sex with someone else. Jumping into bed with another is a deal-breaker for me. In one book, the leading lady even said she wouldn't go back to the guy because she'd just seen the pattern for all future fights. Yet in the end, she does. (And she will.)
Maggie Boyd
3. maggieboyd66
I think SEP does a good job of capturing the fact that life is messy and people often find themselves in weird situations. Hers tend to be a bit weirder than most but then, exageration of reality is a staple of fiction. It helps us ask the hard what ifs?

On a different note something that always bugged me was that Sugar Beth's parents essentially got off scot free for the trouble they caused their child. Her dad's rubbing the affair and love child in the face of his wife and his bitter treatment of his wife and child turned the wife into a shrew and made Sugar Beth vindictive toward the person who stole her father's love. Is he taken to task for it? No. Sugar Beth's mom was hell on wheels and behind a lot of SB's behavior. Yet I never saw a real accounting toward her either. SB, who was a young woman shaped by odd circumstances, is the one that had to pay for everyone's crimes. That always bugged me.
Carmen Pinzon
4. bungluna
I am one of those readers who won't read certain types of difficult characters/plots, especially if they touch on a pet peeves. I skipped "Ain't She Sweet" because I knew I just couldn't handle that situation. I'm vindictive and if all the characters don't get what they deserve, I get mad and holes appear on my walls. I had one of those moments with "Call Me Irresistible"; this book made me loath characters that I'd loved previously.

It's a testament to SEP's talent that her characters can engender such strong emotions in her readers!
5. Kareni
Practice Makes Perfect is a wonderful book by Julie James; however, it is revealed near the end of the book that the hero did something in the past that was pretty reprehensible. The heroine forgave him rather quickly; I'm not sure that I have!
6. KateNagy
Yeah, the whole Secret Baby thing really bugs me. If you're a heroine (especially a contemporary heroine -- I'll cut a little slack for women in historicals), and your Baby is a Secret, there'd better be a DAMN good reason -- a witness-protection-level reason -- you haven't come clean. Stephanie Bond's Baby, Come Home is one example of a book in which I just lost all respect for the heroine because she had a teenage son she had never bothered to mention to the father, largely because she couldn't take the associated aggro. And the dad wasn't a bad guy -- just young.

I read another book recently -- one of a series of 50s-era YA books -- in which the "hero" faked a serious injury so the heroine would remain by his side. To the heroine's credit, she threw his lying rear end out the door as soon she figured out what was going on. They did end up together, but it was several books later, and he did a considerable amount of growing up, so I could live with that outcome.
7. wendyL
I havenever understood why so many people like Nobody's Baby But Mine by SEP. The heroine is judgemental and idiotic and the premise is unbelievable, and I find her actions reprehensible.
Carmen Pinzon
8. bungluna
@wendyL - the hero was no saint either, but somehow they evened each other out for me in that book.
10. Scarlettleigh
@wendyl & @bungluna - I never re-read Nobody's Baby But Mine. The whole premise bothered me. I never read This Heart of Mine either - again the actions of the heroine put the book over the mark.
12. HJ
Trying to read this post made me face up to the fact that no, I can't read books with horrible characters like these. I can't even read an article about them! I think it's because I already find it depressing how mean people can be, and one reason I read fiction is to escape that. I'm not saying that my fiction has to be unrealistic; I just do not want to spend more time than necessary with nasty people and I don't want to see them have a happy ending!
Robbie Thornton
13. Button
Flawed heroines? Bring them on! Being a very flawed woman, I can relate. I've even done a couple of things in my life that some people, perhaps even most, would find unforgiveable. I have an entire list of things I've done that I'm ashamed of. I've made peace with myself and these issues, and I like to read that redemption and change are possible. I recently read Linda Howard's Death Angel. The heroine was a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up to be the live in lover of a drug lord. Yep, she slept with him, pretended to be brainless, lived the "good life" and squirrelled away anything valuable he gave her for a rainy day. Deceitful, vengeful, immoral and intentionally tacky. I absolutely adored her character. Yeah, she had reasons for becoming what she was, but she had also ruthlessly thrust away her conscience to do what she felt she had to do to be happy. Her story was one of epiphany, rebirth and redemption. Sure, there was a love interest (who was as morally ambigous as she was, if not more so) and a happily ever after, but the journey she took was the focal point of the book. That's what made it a book I'll never forget.

And I loved Sugar Beth. I reckon every girl who grew up in a Southern town knew someone like her. We get to see things from her perspective, and understand some of what made her what she was. We got the satisfaction of getting to see her get what was coming to her. We watched her struggle to mend her ways. In the end, we got to see her get her guy. Another story I'll never forget.
14. Aunt Bo
I absolutley LOVE "Ain't She Sweet?" It is one of the first SEPs that I ever read, and possibly even the first. I think I like it so much because even though Sugar Beth was awful and was a horrible 'mean girl', she's changed and is now home to face the music. She knows people will assume the worst of her still and think she's a gold digger, but she has a need to make things right. I find her a very likable character. And she got hers too. Colin is a total jerk to her, with reason of course. But when I read her back story, I can understand how as a child, she would want to get back at her father for doing what he did. It wasn't okay, but her parents shaped her into what she was when she was younger. Once she grew up and went into the real world, she came to terms with her past behavior, I think, and did try to attone for it. And let's face it, Winnie probably needed to have her crisis to see that Ryan truly loved her for her, and not for Sugar Beth's replacement. I recommend this book a lot to showcase SEP's writing ability, especially if others don't want to get wrapped up in a whole series.
15. Jennifer R
Yes, I think This Heart of Mine is the worst "bad thing" I've read of SEP's and in general. Sugar Beth is at least over being an asshole. But flat out raping the hero? OH GOOD GOD, NO. Terrible, terrible start to a romance all around in that book.

I haven't read Nobody's Baby But Mine because it also sounds like a horrible premise that will make me mad too.
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