the Little Red Reviewer

On Unlikeable Characters

Posted on: July 8, 2012

We’ve all read them. Some of us like them. Some of us are utterly turned off by them. Some of us find them deliciously alluring, and find that we crave them. Sounds like i’m talking about an anti-hero, but nope, I’m talking about antihero’s black sheep of a redheaded stepchild, the unlikeable character.

And the sixty four thousand dollar question is, how unlikeable does a protagonist have to be for the reader to truly and utterly dislike them, to the point of not giving a shit about the end of the story?

First of all, what makes a character unlikeable? It’s going to be different for every reader,  because we all have our own very personal hangups, everyone is annoyed and/or deeply troubled by different things. Maybe the character never grows beyond a weakness and enjoys their own helplessness. Maybe they hate them self. Maybe they are a sociopath, or apathetic or a manipulative jerk or nihilistic or something more obvious like being cruel to animals. The thing is, if we read enough, we will all eventually run into a character we can’t stand.

Okay, so we’ve met a protagonist we can’t stand. The person  eats live kittens for breakfast and then tasers kindergarteners followed by watching entire seasons of Keeping up with the Kardashians and Jerseylicious on TiVo.  or something equally horrific.

Now what?

Is it possible to enjoy a book that stars an unlikeable character, or is populated by them?

What’s been your experience with characters like that?

Is it sometimes a good thing to be exposed to characters and character traits that we can’t stand?

Since we’re talking about books, do you respond differently to unlikeable characters in movies or on tv?

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spoiler of uselessness: I finished two books in the last 24 hours.  I gotsta write me some reviews and post ‘em.  One of the books involves a severely unlikeable character, someone who I had a hard time giving a rat’s ass about, and thus, a difficult time figuring out how i felt about the book, yet I found the book impossible to put down and zipped through it. The other features supremely delightful characters, and I adored every page of it. When you see the titles of the books, I hope to hell it is obvious which book is which.

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26 Responses to "On Unlikeable Characters"

I don’t mind having an unlikeable character if: 1) there is a good plot point as to having someone bury the kittens up to the neck in the lawn and then bring out the lawnmower (tho I do want to see this person dead sooner or later); 2) don’t be weak with it – I read this book called Redemption of Athalus by D. Eddings years ago and the main dude, Athalus, was suppose to be a really bad guy. But he was a pushover, a bit self-centered, but not the kind of dude to attach electrodes to poodles on a Sunday morning.

I’ve read some great unlikeable characters, so you’re spot on, that it must be other elements that make the story good or not.

Mark Lawrence’s Prince Jorg and Joe Abercrombie’s Glotka. I love those guys to pieces, and they are horrible people, who I really shouldn’t be enjoying. and they would probably fight each other about who got to drive the lawnmower over the kittens.

I hated Elena from The Vampire Diary books. She’s just so ridiculously perfect and she can’t do anything wrong. I think that perfection is unattainable in real life, and therefore dehumanizes any character when an author tries to pull it off. I just kept wishing for her to die forever and that just be the end of it.

unattainable perfection is the worst. Makes the character seem like a robot, and can have negative mental influences on the reader. :(

I appreciate unlikeable characters a lot, at least if they’re well-done. Two great examples: Bellis Coldwine from The Scar and Isaac from Perdido Street Station, both by China Mieville. Did I enjoy these books? Yes. They’re in my Top Ten.

I think unlikeable characters (especially protagonists) make for good books, because the truth is that the most interesting people often have some unlikeable quality about them.

oohh, I didn’t even think of Bellis! She’s cold and rather uncaring, and sort of a bitch, but I never minded her, and always enjoyed the awful situations she got herself into because she just refused to pay attention to what was really going on. I only read Perdido once, so I don’t really remember much about Isaac.

I think that’s the hallmark of a well-written unlikeable– we recognize their faults and flaws but the story is so interesting we plow on anyway.

I recently read A Confederacy of Dunces, and I am not kidding when I say that the characters that I didn’t dislike, I hated. Every single person was whiny and/or annoying and/or manipulative and/or dumb as a box of rocks and yet somehow I found the book to be one of the more delightful books I’ve ever read.

I think the fun of an unlikeable character is that you, the reader, don’t have to deal with this person in real life. You get to take all of the people you personally find disagreeable and roll them up into this character and watch someone else deal with them for a while. It’s kind of cathartic, really!

I had exactly the same reaction to Confederacy!

i’ve never read that. :)

I’ll be honest: at times you enjoy reading it and at others you wonder “Why am I doing this to myself?”

I find that my tolerance for unlikeable characters is directly related to how much they entertain me. I generally have a marvellous time with books (or movies, or TV shows) about entertaining assholes, even if I hate their guts. If they bore me, though, or if they’re so bloody awful that nothing else they do compensates for it, I lose interest.

that’s gotta be it. Abercrombie’s Glotka is a horrible person. but I don’t hate him at all. he’s so damn entertaining, that his chapters are usually the best ones in First Law. I want a prequel that’s just him (even though Abercrombie seems lately obsessed with the Northmen).

I don’t mind the occasional unlikeable character, but the book has to be well-written enough to make me care about the outcome. I read a book earlier this month where the main character was a juvenile delinquent car thief, and I thought he was a selfish asshole. At the same time, I loved the book and seeing the story of how he put his life back together, even though I couldn’t make myself actually like him.

However… “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is top of the list of books that I utterly despise because I hated every single character and couldn’t make myself care at all what happened to them. There was nothing that I found redeeming about that book.

ha ha! so that’s why i never read Huckleberry Finn! it was on the recommended list when I was a kid in school, but somehow I managed to avoid it!

if you find out more about why the person is an asshole, that can help. at least a little.

If I absolutely can’t stand a main protagonist in a book I probably won’t finish it.

I’ve read plenty of books where the main protagonist is unlikable, which I consider a whole different kettle of fish. :-)

yes, now that I’m thinking more about it and reading everyone’s comments, “unlikeable” and “can’t stand them” are two completely different things.

Unlikeable is just that. You don’t like them. Maybe the character loves the color green, and you prefer orange, so you just don’t like them. not really a fault of the author, or bad writing or anything, just you vehemently disagree with the character.

but “can’t stand”? wouldn’t that stem from conscious decisions the author made to have the character do or not do certain things, to purposely get a reaction out of the reader?

I’ll go out on a limb here…..Thomas Covenant. Thought the character was an absolute jackass….which of course made it fairly impossible to enjoy the books…..

My husband really enjoys those books. after much begging on his part “you’ll love them!”, I picked the first one up. this was probably 6 or 8 years ago. i got to that scene, and threw the book across the room.

Hubby concedes that Thomas does some really horrible stuff, but he says the book gets much better. I’ll just take his word for it.

I’ll second Tyson’s Thomas Covenant mention at #8. Worst money I ever spent on a book (and I include Dragonlance in that). Urgh.

Clearly it is possible to succeed with an unlikeable cast — nihilistic worlds starring brutal antiheroes are Joe Abercrombie & Richard K Morgan’s entire shtick. (Though I have to admit, I’m burned out on both of them, especially Morgan.) Jaime Lannister is my favourite character in ASOIAF, and so on.

If I had to guess, I’d say while every character requires a certain larger-than-life spark to be compelling, the bar is set extra high for an unlikeable character. It has to be, in order to make up for his/her other traits! There are plenty of likeable-but-boring characters out there, but they don’t turn me off the way, saaay, the cast of Pride and Prejudice did.

Man, whatever Abercrombie is doing, it is magic. His characters are all jerks, but I love them! sometimes the violence is a bit much for me, but i’ll read his stuff because the characters are addictive.

I read one Richard K Morgan, I don’t even remember the title, and I remember it not doing much for me.

Funny thing about Abercrombie – I read all his books and like you, felt a bit overwhelmed. Despite swearing off nihilistic fantasy, I finally bought The Heroes early this year — and liked it! I thought this was finally the book in which Abercrombie realised that “greyish” and “nihilistic” are not the same thing.

If Abercrombie is/was a gleeful nihilist, Morgan is an angry one!

Well, now I’m really struggling to come up with a character that I really don’t like!
Sometimes a character can be so bloody awful that they’re brilliant – thinking of Iuda in Jasper Kent’s novels – totally sick and twisted but the books would just have been nothing without him. I actually preferred reading when he was in the scene rather than the ‘hero’ – in fact I wasn’t really that taken with Alexsei, particularly in the first book, I found some of his internal thoughts a bit uncomfortable to read and he was basically pretty selfish. So in this example I probably wouldn’t have finished reading the books if it hadn’t been for the evil baddie!
On a different note I also read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – I really disliked that character A LOT (which you’re supposed to) but even though I finished the book it’s not one that I would particularly recommend. Perhaps reading a full book about an unlikable character is just too much.
Lynn :D

Iuda was such a great villain, wasn’t he? and as much as i wanted him to die a really slow death, I loved all the scenes with him, cuz he’s such a damn bastard!! i liked Aleksei as a character, but he was an asshole too. . . especially all that cheating on his wife with his mistress crap. but if he hadn’t done that, well, the 2nd & 3rd books wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting. so yeah, they are both jerks, but entertaining jerks who attempt to justify their shitty decisions.

It all comes down to the writing for me.
I don’t waste my time with trivial “all the checkboxes checked” bad guys, they’re unbelievably limited to me.

I could not stand the drunken assholes in The Magicians by Lev Grossman. The same reaxn you had to Blackbirds–these people are shits and I just don’t care. There was something missing from that story, to me.

I’m exploring a new concept of unlike able characters in Gemma Files’ The Book of Tongues. You start out liking this guy the main character. Yeah! Interesting! Yeah, go be awesome Interesting Dude! But as I learn more about him I find that he hasn’t always made the most appealing of decisions. I don’t feel sorry for him or anything, but maybe this guy is not someone I really want to spend time with after all. But the story and the excellent writing and the intriguingness of the plot, that’s all still there, sucking my eyeballs in.

Mike Allen does this horrific thing in his stories: you meet his characters, nice people, interesting people, I like this guy, what a nice guy I’d totally be his friend…he’s eating people, maybe that’s ok if my new friend seems to think that’s ok…WAITAMINIT–what just happened to me? Aaahh! Horror!

I find that it goes well if I love or hate a character. As long as it’s something strong, it works (especially if there are other characters to like when I hate the protagonist). It’s when I’m just annoyed or bored by a protagonist that the problem arises–and I stop caring not only about them, but about the whole story.

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