On unlikeable characters

This guy can be kind of a dick too.

This guy can be kind of a dick too.

I’m working on finishing up my most recent writing project, and as I wrote a scene today, I realized that one of the main characters in the novel is unlikeable. I knew this already because my writing group had mentioned having issues with her character, but it was only today that I began to figure out why I myself didn’t like her.

Then I thought, should I fix that? After all, it’s not a bad thing to have an unlikeable character. There’s a world of difference between an unlikeable character and a bad one. A bad character is one that isn’t developed well or doesn’t contribute much to the story. An unlikeable character can be well written and indispensable for the plot, but is just kind of an asshole.

On the other hand, I think there’s also a world of difference between a character who’s unlikeable to people in the story, and a character who I personally hate. I might not want to be best friends in real life with Darth Vader or Dexter or Dr. House, but I love them as characters and love watching them on screen. However, the character of the cowardly lion in Gregory Maguire’s book A Lion Among Men was so detestable that I will still rant angrily about him to anyone who expresses interest in reading the series.

Maybe the clearest example of this is the difference between Draco Malfoy and Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series. Draco Malfoy is a jerk to Harry, but he’s a very popular character among readers, partially for the glimpses of his rocky home life. Umbridge is also a jerk to Harry, but readers universally despise her because she’s disgustingly smug and always in control.

Making a character likeable is often as simple as giving them something a reader can relate to, and perhaps a way to justify their bad behavior. Dexter is a serial killer, but he has a family to protect and he tries to only kill other serial killers, of which there are a disturbingly large amount in Miami. House is an absolute dick to everyone he meets, but he’s brilliant and he suffers from chronic pain. Sherlock Holmes, at least in the modern BBC adaptation, is also a dick to everyone he meets, but he’s a lonely genius. Hannibal Lecter eats people and cuts off someone’s face, but he’s a gentleman who respects Clarice and helps her track down another killer. Even when we see them at their most brutal, it’s usually turned against people we dislike. Dexter can violently stab someone else to death, but as long as that someone is a serial killing rapist and not a character we know and love, the viewers will root for him.

I was reading the Pitch Wars wishlist blog hop yesterday, and one of the things I noticed several authors and editors looking for was unlikeable female characters. Since women in novels are often presented as the hero’s reward for completing his quest, they’re written as nice and morally pure. Even if they kick ass, they can’t run the risk of being unlikeable because then they wouldn’t be an adequate reward. When they’re the only female in the whole work, they usually show up as the platonic ideal of womanhood. There’s not a lot of leeway in there to be unlikeable.

It follows, then, that if you have an unlikeable female, it means that her purpose in the novel is not simply to be a romantic interest and/or the representative of her whole sex. An unlikeable female can’t be replaced by a sexy leg lamp, because in order for her to be unlikeable, she has to do something that provokes emotion other than sit there and look sexy. Yes, that’s a very low bar to clear, and having an unlikeable female character isn’t the key to a great story, but it is a sign that the writer is putting a little more effort into characterization than the bare minimum. What those #PitchWars mentors want when they ask for unlikeable female characters are women who are allowed to be flawed and human; characters who don’t need to be likeable for the sake of being a romantic interest.

Your female protagonist.

Your female protagonist.

So where does that leave my unlikeable character? She’s unlikeable because she believes that since she’s the good guy, the morally reprehensible things she does are justified. Her holier-than-thou attitude is irritating. If, as the writer, I never presented a differing opinion to hers in the story, readers might think that I also thought the bad things she did were justified.

Maybe that’s the key. I’m willing to put up with unlikeable characters in stories as long as I assume that the author is intentionally making them unlikeable. I know that Rowling was making Umbridge insufferable because that was the push Harry needed to make Dumbledore’s Army. When I don’t finish a book because of its unlikeable characters, usually it’s because I feel the author is trying for cool and snarky but is failing. Sherlock, unfortunately, has been crossing this line more and more; the writers seem to think that his intelligence excuses his obnoxious personality. I much prefer Elementary, where Sherlock can be a jerk but we’re not expected to love him for it.

In my character’s case, I don’t think I’ll be making an effort to make her more sympathetic. Now that I fully understand why she is the way she is, I can write her a lot better. As long as her motivations are believable, I don’t think she needs to be anyone’s best friend.

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