In defense of unlikable characters

Generally speaking, the reviews for People Who Knew Me have been good. I try not to make a habit of reading them, but I get the general gist when I visit Amazon or Goodreads. If people don’t like the book, it’s usually because they don’t like the main character, Emily (who fakes her death on 9/11 and starts a new life as Connie in California). When I first encountered this criticism, I was perplexed. I’ve always loved flawed characters who make questionable choices. Thankfully, Roxane Gay spoke my mind on this subject in her essay, “Not Here to Make Friends: On the importance of unlikable female protagonists” in Bad Feminist.

Some excerpts I love:

“In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikable. Critics who fault a character’s unlikability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.”

“As a writer and a person who has struggled with likability — being likable, wanting to be liked, wanting to belong — I have spent a great deal of time thinking about likability in the stories I read and those I write. I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it… I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things — human.”

“That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd. It implies we are engaging in a courtship. When characters are unlikable, they don’t meet our mutable, varying standards. Certainly, we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether or not we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.”

Writers are often told a character isn’t likable as literary criticism, as if a character’s likability is directly proportional to the quality of a novel’s writing. This is particularly true for women in fiction. In literature as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances where an unlikable man is billed as an anti-hero, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. Beginning with Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, the list is long. An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented but ultimately compelling even when he might behave in distasteful ways. This is the only explanation I can come up with for the popularity of, say, the novels of Philip Roth who is one hell of a writer, but also a writer who practically revels in the unlikability of his men, their neuroses and self-loathing (and, of course humanity) boldly on display from one page to the next.

When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society? In a Publisher’s Weekly interview with Claire Messud about her recent novel The Woman Upstairs, which features a rather “unlikable” protagonist named Nora who is bitter, bereft, and downright angry about what her life has become, the interviewer said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” And there we have it. A reader was here to make friends with the characters in a book and she didn’t like what she found.

Messud, for her part, had a sharp response for her interviewer. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.”

the awakening
Image inspired by one of my favorite controversial female characters, Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.

When people said they hated my main character, or thought she was “the most selfish person on the planet,” I felt defensive, not because she is my character, but because I didn’t agree with this notion of needing to condone everything a female main character says or does. Like Roxane Gay says, there are plenty of acclaimed-yet-flawed male characters. My example is always Dr. Hannibal Lecter. How is my character “the most selfish person on the planet” compared to a cannibalistic serial killer?

I don’t necessarily agree with many of the fictional characters I love. I don’t even agree with my own characters. That’s the joy of fiction for me–seeing life from another’s perspective, trying to imagine the mindsets that lead to certain choices. I don’t read books to make friends; I read to explore human nature. I am often bored by characters (and people, in general) who don’t have a single ugly thought. The other night, a friend expressed a dark secret to me and I said, “Thank god, you’re human.”

roxane gay

So, I guess I can say that if a character is too “likable,” I can’t get into the story. It doesn’t interest me. Every day, I’m bombarded with subtle messages about how women are supposed to act; when I read, I want characters to give the finger to those expectations.

What are your thoughts on this? Does a character’s “likability” affect how you enjoy a book? Why or why not? 

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