My new novel The Palace at Dusk explores a messy, complicated office affair. As a young corporate attorney, Jasmine “Jae” Phillips promises herself that she won’t date anyone at the office. But while working late one night, when her handsome and boyish colleague Brad Summers asks if she’d like to grab a drink, she says yes. Soon Jae is breaking her never-date-at-the-office rule. And when she later learns that Brad has a wife and child, she finds herself breaking a much more serious rule.
In The Palace at Dusk, Jae is the mistress, “the other woman,” which automatically makes her “unlikeable” by most people’s moral standards. Jae is also a “villain” from my last novel, The Trials of Adeline Turner, where she is Adeline’s work nemesis. When that book was published, I was surprised by how many readers were curious to know more about Jasmine. So after writing two previous books with generally nice heroines who had bad things happen to them, I was ready to flex my character development muscles and write outside my comfort zone about a not-so-nice character creating her own bad circumstances.
However, as writers we’re told to write “likeable” characters, which really means “relatable.” A likeable protagonist in romance makes the reader feel connected to them, wanting to root for them, and keeps the reader engaged in the story. So why would I write an unlikeable heroine’s story, and why would a reader want to read it?
Unlikeable Characters Can Feel More Real — In The Palace at Dusk, my original vision for Jae was that she would be a charismatic, manipulative villain, who gets her comeuppance. But this version of Jae never really felt right on the page. So I took a step back and asked: why would someone who seems to have everything going for her knowingly get involved with an unavailable man? I needed to get entirely into Jae’s head, and now the book opens with Jae herself trying to make sense of her affair with Brad.
As a character, Jae is complicated and full of contradictions. She loves her family; yet her relationship with them is strained. She’s an introvert with few close friends, and holding onto a secret relationship doesn’t help matters. She’s reserved and appears outwardly cold, but she has a strong internal jealous streak. She doesn’t always say the right thing, and a lot of times says the sarcastic thing. She knows she’s not perfect and has vulnerabilities. She has agency, and she fully recognizes that she’s not a victim in this affair and is just as culpable as Brad. She wants Brad in her life, but even she isn’t sure on what terms. As I was creating her, it was this complexity, self-awareness, and emotional baggage that made Jae feel more real and interesting, if not always likeable, as a character.
Unpredictable Storylines — Because Jae’s character is full of contradictions, how she responds to situations is not always obvious. Once she breaks the promise to herself about dating at the office, and then decides to break with society’s moral code on adultery, Jae’s actions are no longer predictable—and with every choice she’s faced with and decision she makes, there’s another plot turn. She will swear off Brad only to get sucked back into their relationship. She will make career choices based upon their affair. She will throw away wonderful opportunities for happiness and will self-sabotage. Even while I was writing, there were so many times, I was silently screaming, “Jae, nooooo….” But if everything played out in a safe way, her story wouldn’t be as compelling a read. I personally enjoy twisty stories, and unlikeable characters usually deliver.
It Promotes Discussion — Unlikeable characters promote discussion because they challenge our thoughts, values, and worldviews, making us think about what we would do in similar situations. Have you ever stayed in a relationship you knew was bad for you? Do you have a “Jae” in your life, a friend who keeps going back to that relationship despite your well-meaning advice? When watching Sex & the City, were you Team Big or Team Aiden? How did you feel about Meredith and Derek’s relationship early on in Grey’s Anatomy?
Ideally, a reader will be conflicted, thinking, “how do I want this story to play out?” We bring our own experiences into reading; and so whether a reader agrees or disagrees with Jae’s decisions, roots for or against her, or is surprised by what Jae considers a happily-ever-after, will likely be based on what they’ve experienced in their own romantic relationships and those around them. And my hope is that with an unlikeable heroine, this story will be something the reader will keep thinking about and want to discuss when they finish the last page.
It Cultivates Empathy — While this novel is intended to be a light, fast-paced read, I expect readers to have a strong reaction to it. It’s well-known that reading fiction teaches empathy and creates emotional intelligence. Though I didn’t write this story as any sort of morality tale or message book, the one takeaway would be that not all love stories are black and white. Relationships are complicated, and I tried to portray a realistic, empathetic take on an affair. While I might not agree with all of Jae’s decisions, I understood why she would do certain things.
Unlikeable characters usually mean unrelatable; but if a character has a strong enough voice, and there’s a good story behind it, I will keep reading. It took me a while to find Jae’s voice, and she was someone worth getting to know. So my hope for the reader of The Palace at Dusk is that they’re in for a super engaged, emotional ride; and if they’re dying to talk about it afterwards, whether they enjoyed it or not and why, then the “unlikeable” heroine Jae did her job.
Angela's book The Palace At Dusk is out now. See our review CLICK HERE
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