Creating Repugnance in Characters
When it comes to reading about repugnant characters, no matter how much we don’t want to know what they’re going to do next, we can’t tear our eyes from the story. Repugnant characters are interesting, impulsive and sporadic. It’s hard to guess their next move because the very thing that makes them repugnant is something we would never dream of doing, and yet we love to see how other characters react to them. Readers don’t only want to delve into the story of the hero character and imagine themselves in that role, but they too want to explore the life of the repugnant character, to see just how far they will go and envision themselves breaking rules that in real life they wouldn’t even consider.
Writing authentic, three-dimensional repugnance into a character isn’t easy, since what each individual reader finds to be repugnant can vary greatly from person to person. This variance can be due to the society a reader lives in, their upbringing, religion, moral views, life experience and personal tolerances.
The following are ten possible ways to create repugnance in a character, with examples in literature and television, from likable characters with nasty little habits right through to serial killers with wholly repugnant minds.
Physical repugnance can be a world of fun to create if you character isn’t human, such as Roald Dahl’s The Witches, with his Grand High Witch described as having a ‘maggot-eaten’ face. But if the character you wish to be perceived as repugnant is human, it isn’t too likely their natural appearance would be found by the masses as repulsive, plus the idea of a naturally deformed character playing a villainous role is both cliché and often offensive. Also, most readers would view an appearance-altering condition or disease with sympathy, pity, or empathy, and so perceived physical repugnance in a character is usually self-inflicted. This can be through poor personal hygiene, facial and body piercings, flesh tunnels, implants under the skin, or scarifying which is the act of cutting or burning the skin to create permanent body modification through scaring. A recent example of scarifying is in the TV adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, where the new members of a religious cult called The Sparrows willingly have the cult’s emblem permanently carve into their foreheads.
2. Bad Habits
Your character doesn’t need to be repugnant by appearance, but can have bad habits that many readers will jointly find revolting. Smoking, for example, is considered as a bad habit, but is difficult to use to create repugnance since readers who are smokers will not have the same reaction to the description of the smell as non-smoking readers. Choose bad habits that many people may join together in finding repugnant, such as a character that eats far too much food in one go, chewing and slurping and talking with their mouth full. Skellig by David Almond is a story of a creature that a boy finds in his parents abandoned garage. He presumes the creature to be a homeless man, and describes him as having twisted fingers (which we discover is due to arthritis) and fly-filled dirty hair. But the truly repugnant description of Skellig came as he ate a Chinese takeaway, because he shoves it in his mouth with bare fingers, before sticking his tongue in and rooting around, while moaning with satisfaction.
Characters committing repugnant acts can often be found in the antagonists of fairy tales. The evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White orders a huntsman to lure the young Snow into the woods and kill her, demanding he bring back her heart as proof. Her extreme act is driven by her intense jealousy of Snow’s beauty. Any character committing an act of repugnance, unless they are mentally unstable, will have a very human motivation for doing so; a motivation that they will use to rationalise their actions to themselves. At the end of the original German story of Snow White, before Disney softened it, the brothers Grimm wrote the Evil Queen a particularly nasty punishment—she was made to dance wearing red-hot iron shoes until she fell down dead—a truly foul and repugnant act, even if it is justifiable.
4. Acts of Justice
The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwall sees Earl Ragnar, a Viking leader, punish the son of one of his men. The boy, Sven, is a bully who took Ragnar’s young daughter from her playhouse in the woods, tied her to a tree and stripped her of her clothing. Earl Ragnar first offers the boy’s father a trial of strength, but the father knows he cannot best Ragnar, and calls his son forward. Ragnar takes out his sword, known as Heart-Breaker, while Sven pleads that he only half undressed the girl. Ragnar tells him he shall have only half a punishment, and smashes the hilt of Heart-Breaker down onto Sven’s eye, instantly blinding him. Sven drops to the ground and cradles his ruined eye while Ragnar spits on him from up on his horse, before telling the boy’s father that he can no longer serve him. Ragnar’s character is strict and ruthless, but fair and moral. He would never take advantage of the power his title brings, but his acts of justice are repugnantly severe.
5. Cries for Attention
Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is deeply in love with Catherine, a woman he has grown up with, and although he is sure she loves him too, she marries another man to further her social ambitions. One of Heathcliff’s many repugnant responses to this is to cover a bird nest on the moors that he had previously shown to Catherine, so that the parent birds cannot feed their young and the baby birds starve to death. These birds and nature meant so much to him, but without Catherine, nothing means anything anymore. As much as readers may understand and empathise with Heathcliff’s pain and desperation, this callous and pointless act of repugnance is difficult to forgive.
The beliefs, views and opinions of individuals differ greatly depending on their community, their religion and their upbringing. For these strong minded characters to be seen as repugnant, they need to be opinionated, out spoken and judgemental. You need readers to be frustrated by their narrow-mindedness and ignorance. In We Were Liars by E.Lockhart, the grandfather of the female protagonist won’t accept her love of her Indian boyfriend. The grandfather would never think himself a racist, but firmly believes his affluent family should only settle for the best, and to him that means white skin and blonde hair, regardless of how kind or intelligent the boyfriend may be.
There is one type of repugnant character can be almost inactive in a story, with barely any dialogue, and yet it’s this lack of reaction that makes them repulsive. Rosa from The Woodlands by Lauren Nicolle Taylor lives in a dystopian future where the government have mixed up all races in an effort to eradicate racism. She lives with her mother and step father, a man who sternly abides by the rules of the government and mentally abuses Rosa daily, because she is not his true daughter, and because he can’t have a child of his own as families are only permitted to have one child. Rosa’s mother witnesses her husband constantly bullying her own daughter, but doesn’t have the courage to do anything to stop him. It is this lack of action that makes Rosa’s mother repugnant to many readers.
If your character is a murderer and you wish them to be viewed as repugnant, they can’t just kill quickly; they need to play with their prey and delight in their suffering. In the Australian drama Wolf Creek the murderer lures in a camping family by saving their son from being eaten by a crocodile, because how could he be a threat if he has protected them? And yet as they sit around the campfire he gradually gets more offensive, belittling their American accents, spitting out the mother’s cooking and describing the particular killing benefits of his hunting weapons, his speech intermittent with a disgusting guttural snigger. As a viewer I already found this man to be repulsive due to his bad habits and how uncourteous he was being to the family, even before he started killing them.
A reader’s reaction of repugnance to a particular character need not be reserved for the antagonist. Dean Winchester from the series Supernatural is a character who defends the world from dangerous supernatural forces. Dean is a hero, who despite a few understandable character flaws and habits is a firm fan favourite. Yet several seasons in, while trapped in hell, he is tortured to death every day, only to find himself alive and healed by morning, ready for another day of torture. He’s told the only way to make the endless pain stop is to become a torturer himself, and once he is finally broken, he does. When he is rescued and back in the living world we discover how easily he can now kill and torture creatures and people, because he has seen so much pain and death he has become desensitised to it, allowing him, the hero character, to commit repugnant acts.
You may wish to write a character whose repugnance is deeper than bad habits and unappealing looks, even one who doesn’t need to use rationality to justify their actions to themselves. These types of characters have truly repugnant, shot away, and erratic minds, but if written well are actually very interesting to read, because their thoughts and the way they piece things together helps us to enter, just for a short while, a much darker, unseen world. Maldoror, written by French Author Isidore Ducasse under the pseudonym Le Comte De Lautreamont, is for me the epitome of repugnance, and a must read for anyone who intends to create a character with a truly repulsive mind.
“I have written of evil…which sings of despair only to cast down the reader and make him desire the good as a remedy.”—Ducasse wrote this in a persuasive letter to his publisher after the printer refused to release the copies of Maldoror, due to its content.
The title character, Maldoror, is described as being born evil, but hid this truth from the world and from himself for many years, until he could finally endure the farce no longer.
“Whenever he kissed a little pink-faced child, he felt like tearing open its cheeks with a razor.”
Maldoror is a book full of richly described acts and examples of character repugnance, from how the title character only trims his nails every fortnight because he likes to cut into the flesh of children and taste their blood, followed by the salt of their tears, to him watching a ship sink in a hurricane out at sea, and delighting in hearing the desperate wails of the soon to die men. He admires the courage and valour of the lone survivor of the ship wreck, who he describes as being no more than sixteen years old, only to blow the boy away with his rifle, because he promised himself there would be no survivors.
This book gives its reader so many wonderful and sinister fictional journeys into the mind of a truly repugnant character, who from time to time even admires the repugnance of others of his own race, such as the mother and wife of a man who hangs by just his hair, his face crudely stretched as he pleads for help or a swift death, while they taunt and beat him with a whip.
But Maldoror, as with many antagonists, has his own limits and rules he tries not to break—he only enjoys inflicting pain and cruelty on creatures of his own race, and not animals.
As these ten examples show, character repugnance comes in many, many forms and affects readers to varying degrees. The most useful advice I have found from researching for this article is to be creative and unique with ways of crafting repugnance in a character, and to make sure you yourself, the writer, are repulsed by them, so that your repugnant character may become as disgusting, memorable, and un-clichéd as possible.
© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.