The perfect

The Problem with Unlikable Characters

Posted on Posted in Blog, Practical Advice

by author Jacques Strauss

Jacques was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. His first book, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Africa. He lives in London with his partner and works as a freelance writer.

In my first novel, my characters are, on the whole, nice and flawed in forgivable and common ways. In The Curator, my characters are, on the whole, nasty and flawed in unforgiveable and uncommon ways.

Presumably Amazon played a role in stirring up the likability debate when it became clear that lots of readers do want likeable characters that they can relate to.  This isn’t news, but the problem of likability clearly bothers some writers and readers. My gut reaction, and I know this is the case for lots of people, is to dismiss this notion of ‘likability’ as nothing more than the concern of an unsophisticated reader who does not like to be challenged (whatever that actually means). But now having written a book with lots of unlikable characters, the question of people’s reaction to them has become somewhat more acute and I’ve given some thought to what really underlies our talk of likable and unlikable protagonists. Is it possible that ‘likable’ has become shorthand for something a little more complex? (Let’s for the moment duck another difficult question – what do we actually mean by likable? – and accept the broad consensus of its meaning.)

Setting aside questions of art, I’m pretty confident that having at least one likable character is a necessary, though not sufficient condition of selling in any real numbers.  It’s not a problem. Likable characters can be flawed and complex and do bad things – in fact they probably should. Nobody is arguing for flat or underdeveloped characters. If your protagonist is likable he or she does a certain amount of heavy lifting in that readers, to use the tired parlance of literary agents and editors everywhere, care about your character. And if people care about your character, they engage with the story and carry on reading. This is no small thing. After all, writers write to be read, hopefully to the end of the novel.

So is it not unwise to write unlikable characters? The question is probably misleading because unless you are writing purely commercial fiction (once again a difficult word, but let’s say for now with the sole intention of selling the greatest possible number of books) I don’t think you necessarily decide to make the character likable or unlikable.  I have a hunch, and I could be wrong, that if the writer doesn’t care for the character (and I’m talking about main characters) there may be an issue. When I look at the nasty characters in my fiction, there are some I don’t care for and it has nothing to do with their actions or their thoughts, it’s because they are not properly developed. When I like my unlikable characters it’s because whatever badness exists within them, comes from within me. It’s my badness, my evil, metastasized. Werner Deyer has a mean spirited misanthropy, which stems from his belief that the world has failed him. He is vain, gluttonous and has an unedifying craving for affirmation, adulation even (a reason many people write, in fact). Self-deprecation is invariably the guise for the highest form of egotism but I can say without doubt, that many of Werner’s ugliest traits are mine.

We need bad characters because plots are so often advanced by people doing bad things but, and this may sound hokey, if the badness doesn’t come from a real place, I think readers struggle more with unlikable characters. This may have something to do with the fact that our default assumption about a person we’ve just met is, that they’re ok; not necessarily good but not bad. So writers need to work to create someone authentically bad that we can believe in.

Of course I recognise the extent to which my arguments are crude; I’m using very broad generalisations about good characters and bad characters – and there is a great deal more to it than that. But it’s possible that having written a book, you step back, and in spite of the fact that you really care for these characters, that these characters each have a little bit of you in them, you realise there is a strong possibility that most other readers are going to think they’re all pretty unlikable characters; that they’re all just bad. What does this mean for the writer and for our belief that it’s important for readers to care about characters?

First off, this question of ‘care’ is tricky. There is a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to how it is that, knowing characters in films and books are fictional, we feel anything towards them at all. When we say that people ‘care about characters’ we tend to mean ‘care about their welfare’. It’s a bit of an enigma and so far there doesn’t seem to be one compelling theory that explains it. But from a writer’s point of view, the important fact is that people do. Readers can have very powerful emotions towards characters and care about them very deeply. But what is it then, that keeps us reading Lolita, for example? Humbert may be charismatic and witty, but do we care about his welfare? Do we care what happens to him? There are lots of reasons we may carry on reading; the pleasure of Nabokov’s prose or we may be interested in how events come to pass. In spite of all of this, all valid reasons to spend 300 pages in the company of an unlikable paedophile, there is still the question of our emotional relationship to Humbert and how it matters in the reading experience.

Here’s the thing. I still think deep down, that in spite of everything there is an element of care. It is of course nothing like what we feel towards Scout or Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, but in spite of our repulsion we still feel something about Humbert. There is something deeply sad and tragic about him – and on a level we do care. And once again, as hokey as it sounds, when writing an unlikable characters, a despicable character even, it can work if at some level you manage to evoke a sense of common humanity.

So I wonder whether the ‘likability’ debate hasn’t been a little distorted by the very word ‘likable’. So yes, on a level, it is perhaps easier to win an audience over with likable characters – and that will always be so. But a character being likable is not actually a condition for caring about them on some level. Maybe characters don’t need to be likable, but it needs to be possible, at a certain level, to care for them. So if I made a distinction between the writer’s attitude towards an unlikable character and a reader’s attitude, then I think good writing is the process of finding a way to collapse it.

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One thought on “The Problem with Unlikable Characters

  1. After your heartfelt eonquelce, that surely leaves you, the writer, and us, your readers, with slight tears in hearts and tears in eyes, and fires, flames just below bellies, your.. Let there always be a road seems like the smoothest coffee. Wonderful. I must make a page of quotes, just to use that one. Simplicity is so moving sometimes..!

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