Thursday, January 14, 2016

I Love the Unlikable Character

"I just couldn't connect with your main character."

I've been told this a lot by people who have read only the first ten to twenty pages of two of my works. These two works happen to be my favorite, and it dismays me a little when people dislike it because they don't like the main character. Even the people who love it and have read much farther into the story tend to latch onto my supporting cast before backing up my main characters.


These characters are those that fall into the category of the Unlikable Character.

What makes them Unlikable? What makes them difficult to connect to?

It's not that they aren't human. It's not that they aren't sympathetic. My readers tell me that. They just. Don't. Like. Them.

Because in the beginning of Rachel's novels, they're mean. They're rude. They're selfish. They're brats. They're wretched. Often without circumstances to really excuse them.

They're basically Eustace Scrubb.

I guess people don't like reading about people like this. They prefer people like Maggie Stiefvater's Gansey, who she gave, as she put it, "Everything I could pull out of my drawer of heroic characteristics."

They prefer Sam Gamgee. They prefer Westley. They prefer the heroic kind I often myself gravitate toward in books.

I do have other main characters like that fit this more popular mold. But I'm not as fascinated by them.

I love characters like Mr. Darcy and Han Solo and Pierre Bezukhov and Jean Valjean and Edmund Pevensie who start off terribly unlikeable, borderline irredeemable, but turn out to be your favorite.

The thing is though, these three aforementioned gentlemen all either possess or quickly come to possess a certain charm that almost excuses their wrongdoings and faults. My unlikeable characters often don't. They're hardly eye candy and they say cruel things to other people and they stubbornly shove them down for their own goals.

But then as the story progresses, they begin to change.

Something I'm tired of is the whole "embrace your faults" movement that plagues especially literature. It had a good purpose but now it's gone beyond "accept your flaws and failures" to "just don't put any effort into becoming a better person because you're awesome even if you're nasty to other people."

I punish my characters for their awfulness. I let them suffer for their blunders. But then they learn to peel away their awfulness and to be kind to others. To put them first. They learn to become the heroic type. They learn how to be a Sam Gamgee.

They're basically Eustace Scrubb.

I think what I find so intriguing about said unlikeable characters is, as they develop, watching their transformation from wretchedness to heroism. Seeing their redemption, almost. Watching them painfully shed their downfalls as opposed to simply accepting them. Because I don't know about you, but I prefer reading about characters who start out awful with faults I myself can relate to in some way and then change into something better, as opposed to just reading about characters who already are something better.

Perhaps I can find a way to have my cake and eat it, too. To have such unlikeable characters who are nevertheless liked by readers. In the meantime, I'll probably always be writing them.

1 comment:

  1. In some cases I really like an unlikable character. But some people can't make it work, in my mind one of the biggest "unlikable" fails was Harry Potter. At first he came across as a mistreated kid, but by the time he was fourteen he was an angry, snarky, and overall unenjoyable to read about (I finished the books for the sake of Hermione). Another "fail" for me is Nico DiAngelo (from Percy Jackson and The Olympians), and like Harry he started as a likable character an then became a negative, socially distant, emo kid. These examples start as likable and then descend into unlikable. Good article though!