Unlikeable characters

Kind of a theme at Crime Reads recently: ON WRITING UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS is sitting here right next to IN DEFENSE OF UNSYMPATHETIC PROTAGONISTS.

Now, there’s two main directions posts like this generally seem to take.

Method One: Treat all characters who aren’t just sweet as pie as “unlikeable” or “unsympathetic” and declare that these are still great characters and you are so especially discerning that you love them even though they are not very nice. A good many posts that go on and on about unlikeable protagonists treat sweet, nice protagonists as the norm, particularly as the norm for female characters. I’m always like, Oh please, what have you even been reading? That is not remotely the norm for any genre with which I’m familiar, including Romance. The norm is snarky, not sweet, and has been for a good long time. In fact, now that I think of it, the most typical norm for female characters in particular might be impulsive, emotional, and silly, which is certainly annoying, but is not remotely the same thing as the norm being nice.

It’s actually hard to list off sweetness-and-sunbeam characters who ARE sympathetic and likeable, rather than treacly and annoying. Sara Crewe in The Little Princess comes to mind. Not every author who tried to write a character like that could pull her off. Super-nice characters who are also sympathetic and likeable are few and far between.

Method One therefore annoys me very much. It treats characters who aren’t especially nice as unlikeable, which is not the case at all. It’s extremely easy to list off zillions of wonderful, sympathetic, likeable characters who are not particularly nice. I mean, what the heck, here: Tremaine Valiarde, Nicholas Valiarde, Stone, and for that matter Pearl and Malachite; Vlad Taltos, Locke Lamora (and everybody else in those books); Aristide Couerveur  in The Bones of the Fair, and for that matter, Kaoren Ruuel, who is fundamentally not all that interested in most people and very, very far from warm and fuzzy; Briony in Chime, Brittle in Sea of Rust, and so forth and so on, ad infinitum. There is nothing at all unusual about extremely likeable characters who aren’t nice and there is certainly nothing unusual about readers enjoying those characters.

Method Two: Defend ineffectual, aimless antiheros or flatly evil protagonists as great fun.

This doesn’t annoy me. I’m just, Well, different strokes for different folks, but count me out. There’s no point defending this kind of unsympathetic or unlikeable protagonist to me. I don’t care that this worked for somebody else. That story is not for me.

I’m curious about which method of argument these posts are going to use, or whether either of them actually manages to come up with something different. Let’s take a look:

ON WRITING UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS

…what really hooked me was that many of the characters in it were deliciously awful. Take beautiful, dumb Anthony Marston, whose selfishness is so pure that it’s almost to be admired. Almost. Or Emily Brent, a pious, self-righteous spinster who regularly indulges in the deadliest sin (pride, that is). Philip Lombard is the closest the book has to a hero, and he’s as morally gray as they come (though any quick scroll through #booktok will inform you that a morally gray hero is actually what the boys and girls want these days).

Method One combined with Method Two!

This post was written by someone (Kate Williams) who enjoys reading about totally selfish characters — that’s Method Two. Then Williams defends morally gray characters as though there’s something new and exciting about them — that’s Method One.

Selfishness is actually one of the most serious turnoffs for me. Pettiness, stupidity, selfishness, I hate hate hate reading about characters like this, and if the characterization is absolutely masterful, then I hate it even more. I don’t care that Williams loves to read about these characters. Not for me. And then telling us that morally gray is what people want! As though that hasn’t been true since the dawn of time!

When you have unlikable characters, especially unlikable female characters, who grow and evolve without ever achieving the gloss of perfection, you will inevitably turn off some readers. 

There it is! The typical strawman (strawwoman) in almost every post about unlikeable characters. This is nonsense. We do NOT expect sweet perfection in female characters; we do NOT reject female characters who are non-sweet or flawed, that is just not true and hasn’t been for at least a century, if it was ever true. Don’t go telling readers they may not like your main character because she is flawed. They’re all flawed (except for little Sara Crewe). If you made your main character selfish, petty, self-righteous, or whatever, then she is genuinely unlikeable for me because you picked flaws I detest. If you’d make her ruthless and monofocused, or even an outright sociopath, those could be flaws I’d enjoy! If I detest YOUR main character, that’s not me rejecting unlikeable protagonists in general — that’s me rejecting YOUR unlikeable protagonist.

All right, next!

IN DEFENSE OF UNSYMPATHETIC PROTAGONISTS

In The Killer Inside Me, [Thompson’s] most famous novel, the protagonist is a small-town sheriff named Lou Ford. Initially, Ford seems friendly and good-natured, if a little odd (he speaks almost entirely in clichés), but it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Ford is a complete psychopath. By the end of the novel, the bodies pile up in gruesome fashion and in sickening detail. How did Thompson get away with that in the 1952? Did his publisher even read the book? In any case, after reading The Killer Inside Me, I decided I wanted to become a writer. And, more importantly, I wanted to write from the point-of-view of a psychopaths, just like Jim Thompson. 

Method Two! This is a guy who thinks it’s fun to read about evil protagonists doing evil things.

Why aren’t my protagonists more relatable? Why aren’t they more heroic? The simple answer is that, for me, unsympathetic protagonists tend to be more interesting and dynamic than those heroic everymen. 

And back to Method One! A different kind of strawman — not a strawwoman this time, but a straweveryman. That’s actually funny! The person who wrote this post is Jon Bassoff. Do you suppose Bassoff actually thinks that heroic protagonists are all the same, while evil protagonists are interesting and dynamic? Probably not. Probably if you pressed him, he’d agree that heroic protagonist vary widely — let’s say, along a spectrum from Kit in From All False Doctrine to Nicholas Valiarde, more or less. This is a broad, broad spectrum, but protagonists from both ends can absolutely be described as heroic. So why this everyman indictment? Why, because that’s a version of Method One — sure, heroic instead of sweet as pie, but it’s exactly the same otherwise.

It’s apparently just really difficult to write a defense of evil protagonists without resorting to some pretense that non-evil protagonists are too ordinary and boring. That’s too bad because it pushes a potentially interesting discussion — why do some readers like reading about unpleasant characters, or even about evil protagonists doing evil things? — into an argument with a false premise: that characters who are not unpleasant or evil must therefore be boring or unrealistic or be painted with a gloss of perfection or some other variant along the same lines.

I actually do not understand why some readers like reading about unpleasant or evil protagonists doing awful or evil things. I would actually like a post that focuses on that phenomenon without starting off with the premise that those protagonists are so much more realistic or dynamic or unusual or whatever, when that is clearly not the case.

The author who comes to mind for me here is Jack Vance. Stylistically, he was an impressive writer. But his protagonists were generally awful! Really awful! Cudgel the Clever springs to mind. My brothers both liked Jack Vance, but I couldn’t stand him, and protagonists like this are why. I remember when Cudgel was faced with this situation: to be permitted to continue some sort of journey, people demanded that he give them the woman he was traveling with. So he did, and went on with his journey. That’s what I remember. For me, it seems as though the style of the writing and the cleverness of the plot matters to someone who likes this book, but the characters don’t matter at all as people. Is that right? I don’t know! That’s just what it seems like to me. THAT would be an interesting thing to talk about.

I’ll have to remember that next time I suggest panel topics for a convention.

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19 thoughts on “Unlikeable characters”

  1. I can’t stand Vance either. Part is that even when his characters act better than that, I can’t get engaged.

    But the truly fatal state is when I wish both sides could lose.

  2. The author of the “Unlikeable Characters” post does at least admit that their goal is to write characters that readers can’t wait to see die (as in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE), which— whew, well, that’s a goal and Agatha Christie DID carry it off, but that’s not generally why I read books! I prefer to read about characters that I would rather NOT die! Maybe the crime genre is very different, and you’ve got to set up lots of characters whom readers will happily see dispatched in clever character-appropriate ways.

    I do admit that there are many minor characters throughout literature who are delightfully flat and memorably annoying in their small-dose appearances, and there could be an interesting blog post about THAT—but in general I prefer to stick with major characters whose company I enjoy, and for me that means they’re “likeable” even if they’re not all sweetness and light. (A certain tired crankiness is very appealing for me in a protagonist right now…)

  3. The bit about wondering what the draw is for other readers reminded me of when multiple people insisted I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (“it’s about a woman hacker! You’ll love it!”), and I found no redeem qualities. Clunky structure, blatant author insertion fantasy, insensitive treatment of aftermath of sexual assault, a hacker character clearly written with no knowledge of the field/culture…ugh

  4. SarahZ, I kind of liked it? In some ways? But you know what I couldn’t stand — SPOILER —

    THIS IS A BIG SPOILER —

    Okay, so you find out your brother is torturing and killing women. What do you do? You bravely escape to the other side of the world, leaving your brother to torture and murder as many other women as he likes for years and years. I mean … seriously? SERIOUSLY? THAT IS YOUR SOLUTION?

    I re-wrote that scenario in my head for weeks afterward, coming up with many far, far better ways in which the sister could have dealt with the situation, thus short-circuiting the entire plot. Possible solutions ranged from anonymous tips to the cops to Oops! I seem to have dropped my cyanide in your tea! But practically anything is far superior to running away and leaving the murderous brother to do whatever he wanted for decades.

  5. This is reminding me of the quote which the internet attributes to Dorothy Jones Heydt (recently deceased, alas) about audience reaction to characters. She said the eight deadly words are “I don’t care what happens to these people.” This can be because the characters are bland and boring, but there are other possibilities.

    I don’t want to spend my time in the head of evil people gleefully doing evil things. I prefer spending time with people who are good, or trying to be good, or trying to work their way out of dire circumstances, but who are trying to choose the right path in ambiguous circumstances. “Villains” who are more gray-shaded can also be interesting, but as you described, my tolerance depends on their flaws.

  6. OtterB, right, and that’s why creepy or terrifying characters can work for me, but not petty, selfish, stupid characters. For me personally, the latter type of character is so repulsive that nothing can make me want to spend time with them.

  7. It really bugged me that the a plot and b plot weren’t integrated at all – 1/4 a, 1/2 b, 1/4 a, and when b plot is happening a is never referenced or thought of. Either make it 2 books, or make the effort to integrate the two stories together.

    And, that inspector character was so bland, yet irresistible to every woman he meets.

  8. I do, sort of, understand people who can enjoy unsympathetic characters, if they’re written doing whatever they’re doing with enough gusto and verve. I don’t understand the rare person I’ve run into who are fans of Gollum, but, there’s no accounting for taste. There are some characters whom I wouldn’t enjoy if they were written differently than they are.

    What I do see quite a bit of is not embracing the evil and unlikeability, it’s reframing the story to make the favored character possible to interpret better. Often (gross generalization here) this includes not checking the villainous monologues against facts elsewhere in the narrative, and pointing them out tends not to go over well.

    There’s a huge spectrum of heroic good type characters out there, just off the top of my head from one author – Pratchett – I can think of half a dozen: Carrot, Vimes, Granny, Ridcully, Rincewind, Cohen. If anything I tend to think of the evil/unsympathetic ones as more likely to be boring. Oh, you were bullied as a child, and now you’re taking it out on the world, boo-hoo. Or Dad liked you best, or you were always better than me. That goes back to the writers, failing to come up with less standard reasons for villainy, I guess.

    I’m fond of what one manga writer did: the guy wanted to bring the world to his love. Unfortunately due to metaphysics, that meant destroying the world, so he’s a unsympathetic character for what he wants to do. It was refreshingly different than what most writers come up with. Narrow focus on a goal, can be a way around making the character too unsympathetic, I guess. Not even selfishness, just telescope vision. (I’m thinking mad scientist type focus.)

    I’m discovering ingratitude is a big turn off for me, especially crossed with entitlement.

    OtterB, Dorothy Heydt did indeed say those words and call them the Eight Deadly Words. I remember seeing it on Usenet back in the day.

  9. SarahZ, I don’t remember that at all. I mean the thing with the plot. I think I was just so struck by what had happened the girl who disappeared that I remember almost nothing else … except yes, the blandness of the inspector character, whose name I don’t remember. There’s probably a reason I forgot so much of the book, including that character.

  10. Elaine, reframing evil characters to force them to seem more sympathetic, this is different but still a GREAT EXAMPLE. You remember the sequel movie to Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal? I was absolutely astounded at how the scriptwriters tried to make Hannibal a cool, neat, admirable character by making all the supposed good guys petty, selfish, blind, stupid, ambitious — seriously flawed in contemptable ways. That way the audience could admire Hannibal, whose evil was comparatively striking and impressive.

    A terrible movie. I mean, I think it did a good job of what it was trying to do. But still horrible.

  11. The “unlikable” characters I actually LIKE are usually the ones with their own code of morality/honor that happens to include a number of less-than-typical things. I’m particularly thinking of a story about a necromancer, who makes no excuses for the fact that he kills people and raises their spirits to serve him—but he’s also loyal to his friends, tends to target thugs to bad guys for his victims (amusingly, NOT because he’s Just That Good, but because people complain less if you’re wiping out the guys who already have bounties), was in his heydey a defender of the world to the point where he burned his own soul up to defeat a reincarnator who seemed determined to go around killing everyone strong because he could, etc.

    In other words, there are the same points of commonality that you would find with many other characters that are genuinely heroic, which makes his darker deeds stand out in starker contrast, because he sees no problems with his life such as it is. He “returned” by taking over the body of some poor kid who agreed to let him drive, but then decided to preserve the kid’s consciousness and give him a new body later on when he couldn’t find enough evil (even petty evils) in him to justify snuffing him out.

    The ones that are awful just because they are so proud of being stains of humanity? Those books get walled within the first chapter and discarded with prejudice.

  12. Megan, that character sounds interesting, who is he and what’s he from?

    Rachel, I’ve never seen or read any of the Hannibal books or movies, but I do remember hearing that about the sequel, and that is exactly what I heard they did in it.

  13. I third the request for the necromancer story name and title!

    An awesome example of a character who is “unlikeable” not for heinous evil but for being flawed is Pali Avramapul. The Redoubtable Pali Avramapul came out recently, sequel to The Return of Fitzroy Angursell, and it is fantastic—equal to Hands of the Emperor for character development. Pali is stubborn and angry and hurts her friends and is scarred by the past and suffers no fools and I love her to bits! (But I notice that several reviewers don’t like her at all.)

  14. It’s a story on Royal Road called Sylver Seeker. I’m not entirely caught up but I’ve read at least two or three novel’s worth of text so far and it’s been very entertaining.

  15. Thanks, Megan! For those of us with Calibre, and the fanficfare plugin for it, it’s easily downloadable into Calibre and then we can shove it onto our favored reading devices.

    Gotta say the first few paragraphs don’t draw me in, but with your recommendation and description I’ll give it a long try.

  16. I’m actually rereading it and although the first chapter is easily the worst in terms of “needs editor” it does get a lot better in terms of grammar issues even just a little farther in. There’s a lot of violence in the first chapter but the story overall soon evens out.

  17. I like that you separate the reactions of the reader versus other in-novel characters. As readers, we’re not on the receiving end of the protagonist’s unlikeability. If the author has done the job of making us care properly, we’re justifying that unlikeability. (There must be a better word for this.) I think it’s easy to conflate the two perspectives and decide no one can like a protagonist who isn’t nice or sweet.

    Between this post and the other one about Novik’s El, I was reminded of a manhwa with a very very selfish character, that I actually like a lot. Normally selfishness is a big turnoff, but this character has great reason to be selfish, and it also doesn’t stop her from being heroic (although she will loudly proclaim her own selfishness, even in heroism). And this is why. She’s so unlikeable to other characters, but because the reader has seen her reason for being from the beginning, we’re rooting for her. Or I am, anyway. (The Golden Haired Summoner, anyone?)

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