When Characters Annoy

The Arts

burning man

As I embark upon the 17th Bryant & May adventure, I have to ask myself; am I still making the characters interesting? I ask because on the US Amazon website, a reader described Arthur Bryant as annoying. He is of course, but in the UK we treasure annoying characters, from Harry Worth, Charlie Drake and Albert Steptoe to Mr Brittas, Hyacinth Bucket and Count Arthur Strong. And of course, Basil Fawlty. But we also care for them.

Naughty characters are more fun than nice ones, just as sidekicks are more memorable than heroes, and besides, we need them to give our heroes someone to talk to. I had wanted to introduce a new villain but it seemed unfeasible, even in the world of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, to have the same on cropping up again and again – despite the fact that they do in real life (you only have to read court case files to see how often the same names crop up). The only two villains I’ve used more than once are Mr Fox and Mr Merry.

It’s tempting to tell readers why characters are annoying, but is there anything more tiring than a backstory that over-explains motivation? We treasure small-minded men and bossy women, especially in social comedies, but also as figures of tragedy. You can date this to ‘Hamlet’, wherein Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are classical tiresome but serve a key purpose (It’s not generally remembered that WS Gilbert wrote a play called ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ that parodied them long before Tom Stoppard did the same).

But at what level do you start to wear out your readership? I have to be careful with Arthur and pull him back from the brink to keep him on the readers’ side, which is why I also make him vulnerable. One of the most fun things you can do with an annoying character is make them ‘infect’ everyone else with their behaviour, forcing them to be logical about something inherently illogical.

Norman Wisdom often took a different tack, becoming deliberately annoying to undermine wealthy enemies higher up the social scale. These are comics who upset the status quo, from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey. The most annoying fictional detectives I’ve come across are Mrs Brady and Detective Dover. I’d be interested to know of any others.

Lately television has become more trusting about audience tastes and has started to develop deeply flawed characters in series, but I think it’s something that must be done with a light touch. I’m heading back to the novel, but here’s Norman, being very annoying indeed.

16 comments on “When Characters Annoy”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    As Alfred Hitchcock once said, with his usual lack of modesty-“I’m successful as I never try to please everyone, and no one ever should”. Or words to that effect.

    All the characters mentioned above (with poss exception of Charlie Drake) were and are still very funny. Both Count Arthur Strong and Arthur Bryant make me laugh out loud. Annoying people are wonderfully funny.

  2. Brooke says:

    Annoying but marvelous fictional detectives:
    Well, let’s start with Sherlock. Rude, sarcastic toward his long-suffering house keeper, BFF Watson. Misogynist, drug addict. Egoistic who insults prime ministers and princes alike; and recall his little joke of hiding a valuable horse because its owner did not give Holmes his propers?

    Rebus… I have a horrible feeling he won’t be around any longer.

    Commissario Montalbano…selfish adolescent with a gun. Fortunately he also has a brain and a heart.

  3. Graham says:

    Bryant may be annoying but he’s still very funny, and actually lovable. Don’t change anything unless it’s something you want to change for your own reasons.

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    One American reader finds AB irritating. So at least one American has got the point. AB is supposed to be irritating isn’t he? That’s a plus Mr F, not a negative.
    Not all irritating people are funny though – the Gover, Bojo, Farago, Bono, The Donald, all massively more irritating, but not a chuckle to be had betwixt the lot of them.

  5. Trace Turner says:

    I’ve always liked the fact that Agatha Christie expressed her irritation and annoyance at Poirot through her mystery writer character Ariadne Oliver’s irritation of her own fictional detective.

  6. Denise Treadwell says:

    Arthur Bryant amuses me, and I have lived in the U.S. for 37 years. Perhaps the person on Amazon is young and misguided. I can think of many people who are anoying, too many to list here!

  7. Martin Bambury says:

    Christopher, just finished reading Wild Chambers , thoroughly enjoyable, I do believe your stories are getting better and better. As a man of reasonable age ,my hero is Arthur Bryant, if it was only possible to be as intelligent as the man himself, and yet still part fool and child , marvellous. Please continue mr Fowler.
    You won’t remember me but I had the pleasure of listening to your good self and shaking your hand at Waterstones in Bath , a very good evening thank you.

  8. Cynthia says:

    Bryant isn’t annoying. He’s wonderful. And your books are wonderful, interesting, funny and in short, I will seriously grieve should you ever stop writing them!

  9. Chris Goddard says:

    I’ve not read Gilbert’s “R&G” since 1975 in the Guildhall Library, as a follow-up to reading “The Palace of Truth”. I enjoyed it then and now it’s available online, I don’t have much excuse for not re-reading it.

    As far as Arthur is concerned. yes, he is annoying. But that’s part of his charm.

  10. J F Norris says:

    Do you mean Mrs. Bradley created by Gladys Mitchell? You typed Mrs. Brady. I think she’s a hoot, but Mitchell’s insistence on indulging in rudimentary Freudian psychology and ascribing those theories to many of her murderer’s motives can be really grating.

    The most annoying character in detective fiction I’ve come across is Pamela North and to a lesser degree her husband Jerry North. Can’t stand her! They were clearly modeled on Nick and Nora Charles of the movies (the first book in the series was published two years after the successful movie), but they’re so entirely fake and ooze ersatz sophistication to the point of nausea. I’ve read three books by the Lockridges and I disliked all of them. Wouldn’t touch another one if you paid me to read it.

    There are others who irritate me but they’re so obscure I’m sure no one has ever heard of them or read them. Like Graydon McKelvie created by Marion Harvey. Anyone, anyone…? [pause, pause] I thought not.

  11. Diane Englot says:

    Your characters are never annoying, never boring, because with each book they are always evolving, always facing fresh adventures. I mean, look at Arthur’s story line these past few books. All our beloved PCUers are like cogs turning the wheel of the story, but they are adorably wonky cogs, so you never know where the wheel is headed!

  12. Helen Martin says:

    They improve with each re-reading.

  13. Helen Kain says:

    Arthur Bryant is delightfully rude and annoying. Isn’t that the point? Anachronistic, stubborn, solitary and brilliant, too. Please don’t change him.
    Your books get better and better. My husband and I regularly drive 9 hours together as we move between two houses we own, and your audiobooks make the journey fly.
    Thank you, dear author!!!

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Annoying people seem to be the lynchpin of a lot of entertainment, both serious, and comedic. Whether the character sets out to annoy, eg. Harry Enfield’s ‘Only me!’ character, or is unaware of it, eg. Gordon Brittas, or through an almost psychopathic ignorance and lack of empathy, eg. Alan Partridge. Authority figures, such as the ‘jobsworth’ Postman, Newman, from Seinfeld, and the frighteningly malevolent Bishop Len Brennan in Father Ted, are a good source of annoyance, as it’s fun to knock them down. Or kick them up the arse. Spike Milligan (who would have been 100 this year), and Marty Feldman, both enjoyed playing contrary characters. Their joint ‘Rival Undertakers’ sketch is an utter joy. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore revelled in annoying characters. Their drunken and foul-mouthed alter egos, Derek and Clive, exist solely to annoy, and are all the funnier for it. The utter filth that lurked in the darkest corners of the minds of a concert grade pianist, and a respected writer and satirist, is a thing of wonder that has made my brother and I cry with laughter many, many times. We once made the mistake of playing it in the car, and had to pull off the road, as we were laughing too much to be safe.
    Oh, I agree that Charlie Drake wasn’t that funny, but a memory from childhood is seeing him in ‘The Worker’, where every week, the exasperated Employment Exchange (bring ’em back) clerk, played by Benny Hill’s long-time stooge, Henry McGee, would grab the diminuitive Drake by the lapels, pull him over the counter, and lift him to eye height in utter despair at the little berk’s incompetence. You just knew, that every time it happened, thousands of people who had to deal with complete muppets day in, day out, agreed wholeheartedly with Mr Pugh’s frustration. And wished that perhaps once, when nobody was looking…

  15. Kathy Keenan says:

    I love Arthur! Don’t change him please! And I’m American. Don’t listen to one person and please don’t stop writing Bryant and May books!

  16. Jennie says:

    Another American for Arthur Bryant here! I accidentally discovered Bryant & May a year ago and have since read every scrap. My daughter (living in UK) sent me the graphic novel for Christmas. Of course Arthur is irritating, even to his lifelong partner in crime, John May. I wouldn’t change a thing!

Comments are closed.