Snarky Characters: Love Them or Hate Them?

UNSAVORY CHARACTERSDo you need a squeaky clean protagonist? What about a protagonist who’s on the wrong side of the law?

Yesterday, I finished Wings of Mayhem and sent it in to my publisher (as I told you in my last post, Writing Detectives: Learn from a Pro). Once I finished the last-minute synopsis and sent it in, a weight lifted off my shoulders.

It’s back. Self-doubt is gnawing at my side. What if they hate it? What if they don’t like my protagonist? What if, God forbid, they reject it?

Those who aren’t trad-pubbed may not know this, but every book must be “accepted.” There’s no guarantee unless you have a last name of King, Patterson, Cornwell, or Child. And that, is terrifying! Once you’ve established an audience you can send in an outline and get it approved. Until then, it’s a flip of the coin.

Let me give you a little background. I created Shawnee Daniels a few years ago when I wrote my thriller, Timber Point. And I still adore her. She needs to be heard. There’s no way around it. I’ve tried to resist her and write other things, but she keeps calling me back. To me, that’s a sure-fire sign that she’s meant to shine in the literary spotlight.

She has her faults. Many faults. By night, she’s a thief. Specifically, a cat burglar. But she steals for the right reason (in her mind) and only targets those who deserve it. She’s got such a huge heart. It just happens to be masked by a cool, often brash, exterior. Over the years I’ve written three Shawnee Daniels novels, and have never tired of her. But then, I added so much to her character that all three novels need to be rewritten.

While working with Larry Brooks, he discovered the dreaded eye-roll moment in Timber Point. You know the kind. The “Oh, please. Yeah, right, like that could happen.” So, I tore the novel apart. Then I got an even better idea, and an even better idea, and one of the best ideas for a murder that I’ve ever had. It’s actually a real MO, but it’s not included in 60 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters. Twisted doesn’t even begin to describe it.

On top of that, I concentrated on filling the novel with symbolism and signs and cryptic clues. It was one of the hardest rewrites I’ve ever done with all the details, to make them blend and flow with the storyline to create an overall cool effect. I spent hours upon hours tweaking so it all fit perfectly. Notes everywhere. Scribbles on the back of envelopes, in the corners of my notebook, upside-down, sideways, you name it, it’s there.


So now, I’m in an absolute panic. What if something went wrong and I couldn’t see it?

This was the first time I didn’t have time to run it by a critique partner because the deadline was Friday. If I missed that window, I’d have to wait until after the first of the year.

See my problem?

Writers can NEVER see their own work. I don’t care how experienced you are; it can’t be done. To send in the manuscript sight unseen is a total crapshoot. And I’m paying for it now. I sent it to my CP today, but this is ass backward.

I can’t reveal all the ideas that swirled in my crime writer mind, but one of them was to give her a day job AT THE POLICE STATION (actually, that was Larry’s idea. Best coach ever!). A cat burglar surrounded by cops. What if someone discovers her secret life? The possibilities were endless, and I made sure to hit almost all of them.

Back to my initial point using Shawnee as my example. Here is a character who grew up on the streets, sometimes living under a bridge. She steals. She swears. She hates to be hugged or any public displays of affection. She wears almost Goth-like makeup, but no one better ever call her Gothic. To most, she appears cold, hardened, and snarky.

My first problem was, how do you frighten a character who’s been through it all, muggings, sexual assault, homelessness, abuse?

That I was able to solve with a bizarre, terrifying murder spree, and a serial killer on her tail.

The next problem was, how do I make readers care about a thief?

You might say, “Show her heart.”

Fair enough. But how? Show her love of animals? Show her helping an elderly woman across the street? Show her musing about how much a certain event in her past hurt her? (<- the latter is not the best way to do it, but you see my point)

Here’s where secondary characters can really work for us. In Wings of Mayhem I gave Shawnee one friend. Only one. She is a loner after all. But in order to show her soft side I needed to make that friend her polar opposite, someone to play the mother role, someone who’d be Shawnee’s conscience, and someone who’d strike at her flaws.

Who did I choose?

A librarian who’s never sworn a day in her life, who wears comfortable shoes, and who loves to bounce on her toes and wave jazz hands when she’s excited, who shouts, “Woot!” and whose personality is the furthest from Shawnee as you can get. Juxtaposing galore!

Did it work? I think it did. Only time will tell.

By showing how Shawnee related to Nadine, I could bring out her softer side and, hopefully, make readers empathize her. They don’t have to like her. But they do have to empathize enough to keep reading. It’s a fine line. Characters who aren’t squeaky clean are always a crapshoot. But, in my experience, readers love them. Case in point: Frankie Campanelli from Marred. I can’t tell you how many people loved her as much as I did. Granted, she stands on the right side of the law, but she’s certainly no saint. Far from it. Frankie sleeps around, has a trash mouth, is snarky, and wouldn’t hesitate to sucker punch someone who said the wrong thing.

And so is Shawnee, only she’s more of an extreme case. When I added a gay detective who Shawnee hates and who’s always on her case, the end result is hilarious. While writing I’d be laughing so hard I was crying, and my husband would ask, “What’s so funny? I thought you were writing a grisly thriller.” But the way the characters play off one another is an absolute riot…to me, anyway. Who knows what anyone else will think?

What’s your opinion? Do you need a squeaky clean character? Or would you be willing to go along for the ride with someone who has one foot on the wrong side of the law?



About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine published her flash fiction and her short stories are published in numerous anthologies and collections. InSinC Quarterly featured her forensic articles about Radiocarbon Dating and Skeletal Differences. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's also the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud member of the Kill Zone, where she blogs every other Monday.


  1. Haha I understand this post so well -there is nothing like clicking ‘send’ on a manuscript for it to instantly morph from something you’re excited about to the worst thing ever written in the history of the universe!! Agree with many commenters here though – characters that are strictly unlikeable are often the most interesting to read. Good luck!
    Claire recently posted…Chapter 4: PaisleyMy Profile

  2. I need to pick these up!! Put them on my tbr list.
    Traci Kenworth recently posted…Writing Links in the 3s and 5…11/23/15My Profile

    • Wonderful! You’ll have to wait a few months for Wings of Mayhem, but you can add Marred to your TBR list. Thanks, Traci. Hope you have a wonderful holiday!

  3. My favorite characters are those with flaws. Shawnee sounds intriguing, especially her friendship with Nadine. There’s a lot to be said for opposites playing off each other. And I love those strong characters who speak to us as authors, demanding that their story be told.

    I completely get your jitters about submission. Book 2 of my Point Pleasant series is probably going to have to be submitted without going through a CP and I only ever done that once before. You’re a strong story-teller, so I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s just the waiting, I know. I’ll be looking forward to Wings of Mayhem!
    Mae Clair recently posted…New Release: Food for Poe by Mae Clair #Christmas #Cats #SweetRomanceMy Profile

  4. Great reminder about making sure characters are “real”. Everyone has flaws, some more than others. I think readers relate more to less-than-perfect characters, and the idea of polar opposites with Shawnee and Nadine–brilliant! I hope they accept it. Good luck!
    JHolmes, author recently posted…Kick it in GearMy Profile

  5. Squeaky clean? No. Difficult to make them believable. But they do need to have at least one redeeming characteristic, otherwise the reader will never develop any empathy.
    Mick Canning recently posted…Pitfalls for writers – 1) languageMy Profile

  6. I had a different sort of upbringing than most. With loving, caring grandparents who provided a nurturing environment on weekends and holidays/summer breaks, I also went through six foster homes in four years ultimately residing in an orphanage. Most of my friends in my early teens had been in and out of YDCs a half dozen times by the time we hit hit school. I relate best to characters and real people who carry quite a bit of baggage. It’s likely what part of what compelled me to become a nurse. And snarkiness…that goes with the territory.

    I’m bored to tears with chicklit and stories about “normal” people going about their everyday lives, falling in and out of love, etc…, and I absolutely love, love, love, to see characters sparring, affectionately snarling at each other.

    I think the juxtaposition of the librarian and the Shawnee and Nadine was a good call. Richard and Brandi have a chemistry that works really well for them, but I’m struggling with a character from another work, Jillian. She’s not likable. She’s bipolar, overworked, emotionally detached from her children, plagued by nightmares…she doesn’t even like herself. Very difficult for a reader to empathize with. She has one friend, Marci, another nurse, who is single and level-headed, but she’s a bit envious of her. There is another character, Sara, a psychologist, who is very likable…but I’m afraid I’ve introduced her to Jillian too late in the story for her to have the potential with Jillian that I had hoped for…anyway…that’s why they call it a work in progress. You’ve given me some very good food for thought on how to accomplish what I’m after between these two.

    • I’m so glad I could help, Susan. I introduced Nadine right away, and it seemed to work well, having her play the mother role to Shawnee. It sounds like a good idea to have Jillian come on scene sooner. But it’s tough, huh? Showing too much “bad” is always a hard call without showing the angel behind the snark. The torment we writers endure. I wonder if it ever gets easier.

  7. Here’s how I described Debra Johnson in Abandoned and Light: But, sometimes, she really liked to hurt others, and that worried her. She had enjoyed hurting Darrell last night, partly because the asshole had deserved it and partly because it made her feel powerful. She had skills the average woman—women like her sisters with their loving husbands and fine clothes and expensive homes and great kids—would never have. She knew a thousand and one ways of killing a man, and she knew that she was capable of using them all because she had already killed four men in combat and she was none the worse for the ordeal. She was alive and they weren’t. Simple as that.
    pauldaleanderson recently posted…The Devil Made Me Do It Again and AgainMy Profile

    • Love it! See, immediately I’m drawn to her. Either that makes me strange or the average reader. Though it seems by everyone’s response that I’m not that unusual.

  8. Wendy Anne Darling

    Real life tends to be humdrum – boring. If somebody was forced to read the story of my typical day they’d probably be begging to have their eyes poked out after the first hour.

    I don’t like snarks in real life, but then, I don’t read about real life either. When we want to escape from it, we need drama and, yes; we need SNARKS!

    • Hahahaha. “If someone was forced to read the story of my typical day they’d probably be begging to have their eyes poked out after the first hour.” Love it, Wendy! Thank you.

  9. Protagonists need a major character flaw that seems impossible to overcome in order to be believable and even likable. The Ranger and Jon Fish in my Winds-series of supernatural thrillers, both have a lot of past bad behaviors that plague them relentlessly. Hard as they try, they regress when under stress. The Ranger is a cold-blooded killer. It’s a part of his basic nature. He’s trying to be good and not kill again, but circumstances force him to revert to type and do what he does best. Fish is a reformed alcoholic who once robbed people at gunpoint when he needed money for a drink. I think Shawnee is interesting because of her background. All of us have skeletons in our closets. We can identify with characters that are less than perfect.
    pauldaleanderson recently posted…The Devil Made Me Do It Again and AgainMy Profile

    • Thanks, Paul. Actually, I’m really enjoying Megan in Spilled Milk, and she’s certainly not doing the “right thing.” Nice twist, btw. My jaw dropped open when you-know-who was… (No spoilers!)

  10. I love this post, and am excited for this character. I just finished writing one into my next novel. He lies, he kills, but there is a certain charm. It sounds weird, but I just love him. I’ll let you know when I’m ready for betas, maybe you’ll have some free time.
    Craig recently posted…Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRTMy Profile

    • See, I love them too, Craig. I just hope others agree. So far so good! And yes, give me a shout when you’re ready. If I’m available, I’d love to read it.

  11. Hey Sue – I’m with Margot & June as well. I’m not a big fan of snark or sarcasm in real life, but I agree that fictional characters need to be larger than life with some significant flaw. My detective protagonist in the “No” series is bi-polar 🙂
    Garry Rodgers recently posted…THE GRIM SWEEPER – MAKING A KILLING IN CRIME SCENE CLEAN-UPMy Profile

  12. Hi Sue, I’m with Margot on this. Characters are never just one trait unless we write them that way. And that in itself leaves much room for expansion. Fingers crossed for you 😀

  13. To be honest, Sue, I really like characters who some faults, including snarkiness. It makes them more credible and real. I wish you success with this novel. 🙂

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