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:
…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 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.