Unlikeable Characters; What’s Not To Like?

Now fret not, this is not another discussion on book blagging or any of that shebang (I am officially past all that; well I am now I made that small joke) and in a much lovelier place. Anyway, digression aside, what I want to discuss with you all is the tricky subject of the unlikeable character as they seem to divide reader’s opinions quite a lot.

I am not talking your average villain like the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, or psychopathic murder in a crime novel/ poisonous dwarf in a fantasy etc. I am talking about narrators or protagonists who you simply don’t like for the despicable things they do, or think or simply the dark side of society they show. Examples could be the lead characters in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the lead character in Alissa Nutting’s Tampa or pretty much all the characters in Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. I actually recently discussed unlikeable characters with Christos, as Barracuda’s protagonist Danny often isn’t the most likeable of folk, in the latest episode of You Wrote The Book and how people can be put off a book by them, which has always mystified me and seemed to mystify Christos.

Firstly how can someone write off a novel, play or short story because of an unlikeable character? You couldn’t watch King Lear and afterwards come out and say ‘ugh, that was awful, Lear is so unlikeable’. I have stolen this from Christos, I wouldn’t watch a Shakespeare play but that is a whole other can of worms.  I just think to write off a book because of a bad or unlikeable character over bad or unlikeable writing seems potty to me.

I personally love an unlikeable character, in fact probably more than I love a villain be they panto or psychopathic. I think it is the fact that they can safely take me to the darker side of life, or expose an ugly side of society and really get me thinking about it and the subject the character brings to the fore as we need to look at the light and dark in life don’t we? They can also look at controversial subjects, one of the reasons Tampa (mentioned above) is going to be one of the books I read in the not too distant future – and the lead character in that is a teacher who seduces her pupils. Dark and uncomfortable, but safely stored on a page I can pop down if I feel the need. This is the common complaint; that it can get too much, too dark or too depressing. Yet the great thing with a character in a book is that you can put them to one side – not so someone truly unlikeable in your life.

So I ask you all, what is there not to like about unlikeable characters in fiction? I would love your thoughts if you love them or if indeed you loathe them…


Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

15 responses to “Unlikeable Characters; What’s Not To Like?

  1. This is a topic that has recently taken up a lot of my thoughts regarding reading because characters can so easily ruin a book for me. It happens on a fairly regular basis, so I’ve wanted to figure out what my affliction is so I can look for those key words in a blurb or review that will tell me that while 4 million people may love this book, I will want to throw it across the room. I haven’t figured out any key words really, but it is definitely NOT about likeability for me. I very much enjoyed Gone Girl. I didn’t particularly like Lily Bart from House of Mirth but she still broke my heart. I’d sometimes prefer to read the story from the wicked stepsister’s perspective rather than Cinderella’s. For me, I think its more about being able to connect with the character and recognize something in them, even if it’s as simple and tenuous as they are imperfect just like me. My anathema is the too perfect, heavily idealized Mary Sue. Now if I could somehow figure how to get publishers to put Mary Sue warnings on their books….

  2. Ruthiella

    I liked The Slap and generally I like books with “unlikable” characters. Although it is my feeling that The Slap was written to purposely provoke people and shake them out of complacency. I haven’t read Tampa, but I also have that feeling about that book as well. I don’t know if that was the case with Shakespeare and King Lear.

    I don’t necessarily need to empathize with the main characters, as long as their behavior makes sense within context of the book. Two books I read last year, Alys, Always by Harriet Lane and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller had main characters I would not want to be friends with (or enemies of either!) but both were absolutely fantastic and fascinating to read.

  3. One of the women at our book group is very particular about character – if she dislikes a character, she won’t continue with the book!

  4. I don’t know how many of us are all that likeable, even when we try hard to be… And it’s certainly much more fun creating an unlikeable character than a goody-two-shoes. I think so much depends on how the books is written as well – if the character is so unlikeable as to become a caricature, then I lose interest. But if we can detect some reasons why they are the way they are, if we can see some of our own traits in that character, if they have some redeeming features as well, then it becomes fascinating…

  5. I’ll repeat my recent comment on this matter!

    “It seems so blindingly obvious to me that you don’t have to like the characters in a book (or a film or a play or a painting) that I am always amazed when people comment that it is an issue for them!”

    I think MarinaSofia puts it well, caricatures rarely work (for me anyway) which is probably why I find some of Dickens very hard to read with pleasure. That is independent of whether one might like/love/hate them or whether they have redeeming features. I don’t need redemption in a great character if they are plausible (or at least appropriate to the novel).

  6. I enjoy an dislikable character. For me, Sylvia Tietjens makes Parade’s End, much as Kennedy Marr makes Straight White Male. I’t’s not just anti-heroes either, truly nasty characters can be very enjoyable to read in their ability to get you thinking – there is something pleasurable in reading character’s who we can dislike. I do find, however, that unless there is a depth of character/plausibility (which has been mentioned in other comments) or a whiff of vulnerability (in some form) I find I move towards ‘ranty-loathing’ over ‘loving-to-hate’.

  7. I’m with you–I’m completely fine with unlikeable characters…as long as the story is good. There obviously has to be *something* for me to like about the book. It would be weird for every character to always be likeable in every book–that certainly wouldn’t ring true. Not everyone in real life is likeable.

    It’s not a book, but this reminds me of watching The Walking Dead. I can’t stand the majority of the characters on that show (I like maybe two of them), but I love the show itself. I love to hate the characters I can’t stand. At least that part is true to life. Hahaha!

  8. Amy

    So a few things: I am a character person; one of those people who will find it difficult to finish a book if there are characters that I do not like or cannot connect with on some level. I wish this weren’t so, that I were the type of reader who appreciates the subtle complexities of being human and what not, but I will abandon a book if I find all the characters so annoying, I can’t be bothered to care what happens to them.

    That said, I define “likability” loosely. I do have to like a character but that doesn’t mean the character has to be kind, good, virtuous, sweet, or the protagonist. There are some villains that I love and some heroines that I hate, but I have to be able to appreciate someone in the story in order to get invested.

    Personally, the most grievous sin a character can commit is to be annoying. I can appreciate and enjoy evil, boring, manipulative, unreliable, and all those other bad adjectives, but reading about annoying people makes me want to hurl the book across the room.

    Obviously this is all subjective. This post and everyone in the comments has been very respectful and genuinely interested in the exchange, but following the Claire Messud interview, there was a general implication that readers who want likable characters are part of the unsophisticated masses. People like what they like and I think making them feel bad for that is silly. (I know it’s hard — I find people who think twilight is the apex of literature to be trying — but I am trying to be less judgey about it.)

  9. David

    Quite often (when the writing is good) I’ll find myself connecting with an unlikeable character more than a likeable one, and I think that is the mark of a skilled author: that they can make us confront those more unpalatable aspects of ourselves that we perhaps try to keep hidden or deny – so, certain aspects of Danny in ‘Barracuda’ or Nora in Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ had me cringing with recognition. But if the writing isn’t so good and the character doesn’t have depth then unlikeable can just be unlikeable.

    I also sometimes find myself really hating characters that I’m clearly supposed to find endearing – as with Heather’s example above it’s not a book, and I don’t know if you watch(ed) ‘Last Tango in Halifax’, but Alan and Celia? Argghhhhh!!!!

  10. I don’t mind in the least whether or not a character is likeable – as long as he/she is interesting. Having said that – I do find that my reaction to the personality of characters affects my enjoyment of books: most particularly, if I’m annoyed by someone I’m clearly supposed to find sympathetic, I probably won’t enjoy the story.

  11. I’m with Stephanie: anything is better than a Mary Sue! I used to think of myself as the reader that needed to identify with a character to really like a book, but that’s been changing (mid-30s wisdom?). Lolita was a winner, for instance, as well as Gone Girl (although I have to confess that I was sort of rooting for Amy). Can we consider Sherlock Holmes an an unlikable character? I’m always of two-mind about him.

  12. I have to agree with David – I often like the unlikeable characters. But isn’t it also the case that even the unlikeable once’s often are portrayed as, well, with mistakes, but yes, human and essentially loveable. Often we get to see the ‘two sides of a story’, i.e. why is he/she the unpleasant way he/she is. The last book I read with a very unlikable character was As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann where the main character is a brute, but somehow one starts to feel for him very early on in the story.Skills of a good writer or am I just too easily taken in?

  13. Oh, I like unlikeable characters (though that sounds like a contradiction). One of my favorites is the narrator in the book The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky. She was just so deliciously, obliviously horrible.

  14. Great point and – although I agree with you generally – I personally struggle with this one sometimes. Less with the ‘evil’. characters and more with the ones I simply can’t sympathise with. I hate to say it to you of all people but I struggled with Harriet in Gillespie and I! :-O There you go, I said it.

  15. Ooh Ooh! Sorry to comment a second time but I think I’ve just realized a nuance of this that I think is at the crux of some of my issues with unlikeable characters. It’s all about the author’s intent. If it is clear, because of how other characters in the narrative react to the character in question, that the author intended the character to be likeable and yet I do not like them, I end up getting VERY frustrated with everything about the book. However, if it is clearly the intent of the author that a character is supposed to be unlikeable, then I’m fine with it. I think much of these types of character issues (including the Mary Sue) are not frequently a problem in literary fiction though I could be wrong. I can’t think of an instance where I’ve run into a severe character issue in a literary novel (maybe The Finkler Question which I did not finish?). I encounter it most frequently in Fantasy, YA and Romance.

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