Loving the Unlikable

Lately I’ve read several book critiques where the entire value of a book hinges on the likability of the main character.  This…confuses me.

More on my confusion in a minute.  Let’s get to defining likability first.  The critiques I’m referring to seem to use the word pretty rigidly—as in, I want this character as my best friend.  If the character is not best friend material, the book is at best average, at worst unreadable.

So here is where my confusion lies:  I love a lot of weird and wacky and terrible characters, but I don’t want to be best friends with them.  That’s part of the joy of reading, getting to see people up close that you’d never want to see up close in real life.  Is everyone familiar with Ms. Hannigan from Annie? She is one of my favorite movie characters of all time.  I LOVE her.  She’s an insane, horny, child-neglecting/abusing alcoholic, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want her as a best friend (or a babysitter).  But I love her so much I wrote her into my second novel.  (She’s the principal in THE SPACE BETWEEN US, if anyone’s curious.)  I guess I’m just not sure why anyone wouldn’t want to read about seriously messed up characters.

If I limit myself to reading and writing characters that are perfect, or even perfectly adorkable in a fake-flawed Zoey Deschanel sort of a way (and yeah, I love her too—but I would want to be her best friend, so she’s not the “flawed” sort of character I’m talking about) then I’m missing out on an entire world of fabulous books.  If my reading enjoyment rests solely on how much I want to squee with and hug my main character, I may as well be watching a Gilmore Girls marathon.  Is there value in that, by the way?  YES! I love Gilmore Girls marathons!  And I enjoy writing characters that people genuinely like (I think Carmen from VIRTUOSITY is easy to like), but is that why I write/read literature?  Absolutely not.  And I think it’s a terrible way to judge literature.  Limiting for the reader, and in the case of people who are reviewing or critiquing books, misleading to everyone who comes into contact with those reviews.  It means shutting out so many inventive books and so much beautiful writing.

I love Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND not in spite of Scarlett O’Hara, but because of her.  Do I want to be her best friend?  Probably not.  She would try to seduce my husband and steal my house, but she is so fascinating and complex and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

I just finished reading WHAT WAS SHE THINKING by Zoe Heller.  Fabulous book!  The writing is beautiful and the story telling is smart.  I actually started out liking the main character, but bit by bit, the writer feeds you reasons to doubt her, and by the end…well, I’m not going to spoil it.  I’ll just say it’s clever and un-put-downable, and if my number one requirement for enjoying a book was warm fuzzy feelings for my main character (or ANY of the characters) I’d have missed out on a great read.  And ditto for if I felt like my narrator’s view had to be %100 infallible.

I could talk about so many loveable books with unlikeable characters, but I think you get the point.

As a writer, I recognize how difficult those character decisions are—deciding whether to infuse enough redeeming qualities into a character that your reader is still rooting for them, or to leave them as detestable as possible because that’s the more honest way to tell the story.  That means that as a reader, I never just pass over something unlikeable about a character without thinking about it.  If the writing is good, it’s there for a reason.  And if the writing is good, I owe it to myself and the author to try to figure out that reason.

So when I’m reading a book and I don’t like a character, rather than throwing the book across the room and exclaiming, “I will hate that author forever and ever,” I have to stop and think about WHY the character is that way.  What is that author trying to tell me?  What is the point?  As a writer, I can tell you I don’t slave over my manuscripts and lose sleep over my storylines just to slap down any old caricature.

Are characters ever too unlikable?  Sure.  For me, at least. There are books I’ve struggled through or put down because I found the characters’ detestability so off-putting.  I’m embarrassed how many attempts it took me to read Wuthering Heights.  Probably five?  Maybe six?  And they were spaced out over years too.  I’m not afraid of big scary books, but honestly, I’d get several hundred pages in and be thinking “I hate Heathcliff and I hate Catherine—why do I want them to get together—WHY DO I CARE?  I DON’T CARE!”  Then I’d put the book down for a few years.  I’m not proud of myself, and eventually I did read the entire book.  And even though I never grew to like Heathcliff or Catherine, I do recognize that if I’d deemed it unreadable it would’ve been my loss.  That’s the responsibility I take on as a reader, though.  If I can’t get over my own issues and let them block me, I miss out on what that author is trying to say.

Wow.  This turned out to be longer than I anticipated.  Are there sides to this issue I’m missing?  I’m curious if people feel differently about the importance of likable main characters in YA.  Reviewers of adult literature don’t seem obsessed with it in the same way, and I don’t like what that difference implies about the YA audience.  It suggests that people don’t think teens are capable of understanding the complexity that flawed characters bring to a story, and that…well, that confuses me too.  Because I think they are.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing for them.

12 thoughts on “Loving the Unlikable

  1. There are so many great examples in here. And I’m thinking of Holden Caufield, the original, pretty much very-first YA narrator ever, and a totally dislikable poor thing to boot.

  2. I certainly agree that there are wonderful books with unlikable characters, though some of the prime examples fell flat for me, like with Holden Caulfield.

    I feel like unlikable characters increase the burden on the other aspects of the book. The characterization has to be really good to make me care. There are a lot of times where they’re unlikable in a way that I just want to push them all a cliff and declare the book over. I did that with the movie version of Gone With the Wind; at the disc change, I stopped and pretended they all died while Atlanta burned, because I hated all of them and didn’t care a whit.

    To explain, because I’ve said that bit about hinging on the likability of the MC, that IS a thing. I said that about Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series, because I’d looked at some reviews, and either you think Ruby is funny and like the books or you don’t.

  3. Thought I’d jump in here.

    It may say more about me than I’d like to admit, but I don’t think that I’ve ever encountered a morally reprehensible character that I found unlikable. [The only exception to that rule would be when the demonstration of that reprehensibility becomes so over-exaggerated that I find myself hating the author’s inability to restrain him/herself rather than finding the character unlikable (and, hence, the book unenjoyable).]

    At the same time, I find Bella Swan to be completely abhorrent as a character. However, I find myself hating the book not because I dislike Bella with the fury of a thousand suns but because Meyer seems utterly incapable of writing well.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that YA readers generally don’t have the sophistication to avoid conflating the main character and the author’s style/voice.

  4. I can definitely see that with the Ruby Oliver series because voice is such a huge part of that novel–in many ways that IS the point. If you don’t like Ruby’s voice you won’t like those books (by the way, I think it’s genius, and that series is brilliant BECAUSE E.Lockhart’s fabulous–and likeable!–character).

    I know many readers feel the same way you do about not wanting to read about unlikable, so I’m glad you commented. I suppose it comes down to our expectations for what literature is going to do for us. If you go in with that as an expectation and it isn’t fulfilled, then I can see why you would want to put the book (or the movie) down. I just feel like it’s not always the point of the novel, and sometimes it’s worth cringing through–especially when that’s what the author is trying to make you do.

  5. Wait, first Scarlett and now Holden is dislikable??(!) I disagree. Flawed, but definitely likable.

    Anyway, I agree with you that characters do not have to be best friend material to make a wonderful novel.

    So does it sound too unintellectual to say that sometimes readers are in it for escaping into a world they’d like to be in (and that means people they’d like to be with) rather than just learning about what the author is trying to teach, and a too terribly unlikeable character (especially when in 1st person) pushes that kind of reader out? Olive Kitteridge is a must read, even though she is not likable (IMO). It would have been a huge loss to give it up bc Olive bothered me, but I do think it took away a bit from my pure enjoyment. So like everything, I guess, it is all on a spectrum and lots of other factors in the book play a role, too. (and if you don’t like the MC, the rest of the book has got to be that much better).

  6. Alexandra, it doesn’t sound too unintellectual at all! It’s a combination for me–wanting to learn something and wanting to be entertained–but there have been times in my life when reading is MOSTLY about being entertained or escaping. Likable characters and easier reads have gotten me through some tough times (ahem, pregnancies). But when I’m doing that kind of reading, I recognize it, and I don’t critique books that are too much for my scattered/sad/stressed-out brain to handle. It’s me, not the book. Unfortunately, I see a lot of “this book required more effort than I was willing to put in, therefore it sucks” out there,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s always good to hear from you!

  7. Ack, sorry, I tried to post again, but I guess it didn’t go through. I ran out of words before and didn’t get to saying that unlikable characters CAN work for me, but it’s a lot tougher to get right.

    The best example I could come up with is one of my favorites, A Clockwork Orange. It’s pretty safe to say that everyone in it is terrible and I would never ever want to be anywhere near any of them, but it’s also powerful, and incredibly well-done.

    They can work. And when an author DOES make it work, I am VERY impressed.

  8. As a former middle school teacher, I can’t tell you how many times I had to ask very specific follow-up questions because the extent of sophistication with regards to literature (or life) was “I hated it” or “She/he is crazy,” etc. I think that this could be especially the case with YA novels written in the first person. I just don’t think that they have the ability (or terminology/perspective/background in most cases) to be able to disentwine the character from the writing (or the what is being told from the telling). Sadly, I think that many adults also lack that sophistication…

    Also, I think that the identity formation that YAs are undergoing could play an part in this. I watched my students watch others like hawks trying to establish some sense of what was or was not cool. It may be that the projection of identity is so strong that it isn’t a case of wanting that character as a best friend, but rather as a idealized self. Unlikable character = unlikable self.

  9. BTW, not loving the fact that I only have 1000 characters per post. Sure, it helps readability, but certainly constrains what one might want to (or be able to) say…

  10. Robert, I think you’re right that many readers lack the sophistication for exactly the reasons you suggest. But if I felt like it was an across-the-board YA issue, I wouldn’t be able to write literary YA. I know there are enough sophisticated readers out there buying literary YA (John Green’s audience, for example). The question is whether or not my books will find them. We’ve discussed this before, but perhaps my books are marketed for the audience you’re describing, while those who would appreciate them wouldn’t go near a books that appear to be so…girly, light, etc.

  11. i think the biggest problem with an “unlikable” main character is that they have to be written really, really well. and it’s almost as if the stakes are raised also, because why should you care? now i think “unlikable” has many different definitions from teens, and i certainly don’t think i would want to be best friends with any of my favorite literary characters. i think hard-to-find-sympathy-for is one of the real categories of “unlikable” and can be a challenge. personally, i think courtney summers does traditionally “unlikable” characters best. awesome writing, awesome secondary characters, and the stakes are always high, even though she writes contemporary realistic ya.

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