posted at Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 at 8:00 AM | Discussion Posts, Other Bloggishness
There’s a lot of talk about unlikable characters. Dig through Goodreads and you’re bound to find a lot of books hit with the designation of having unlikable characters. I’ve used it myself, though generally as a positive thing. Today, I want to talk about why I think unlikable characters are generally awesome and why that alone isn’t helpful criticism.
What does it even mean to say a character is likable or unlikable? Well, on the surface, a likable character is one you like and an unlikable one is one that you do not like. However, that’s not generally what’s meant by it. Unlikable tends to be used with a broader intended meaning, as in “no one could possibly like this character.” This, obviously, has some problems in terms of objective literary criticism since different readers like different characters. Personally, I tend to love a lot of the bitchy, “unlikable” heroines of the YA world.
Certainly, there are some characters out there that could safely be deemed unlikable by that broader definition. Take, for example, Alex, the main character of A Clockwork Orange. I’ve read A Clockwork Orange twice and I really enjoy it, but I would be deeply terrified of anyone who actually thought Alex was “likable,” considering that he’s a serial murderer and rapist.
The thing is, though, that whether the characters are likable or not is almost valueless as a general rule. About the only time that I find the unlikability (this is totally a word; roll with it) of characters an actual flaw of the novel is when it’s clear the characters were meant to be likable. Of course, that does involve making some assumptions on the part of the reader given that I can’t actually know for certain what the author was thinking, but, let’s be real, a lot of the time you can tell. A common example of this would be when the book keeps telling you how nice and thoughtful the main character is, but he/she is consistently horrible to those around him/her without any recognition of that at any point. Here, the character’s lack of likability would be a problem because clearly the character building failed.
Most of the time, though, a character being unlikable doesn’t really matter. The bigger questions are whether the character feels real, believable, and interesting. Alex is scum of the earth, but he’s still a compelling character. A character can be absolutely horrible but a delight to read about it. I mean, look at The Vampire Diaries television show: when those characters are being good and “likable,” I hate it, but when they’re in their bloodlusts being evil vampires, the show got so much more interesting.
There’s a reason that most dynamic characters will probably get deemed unlikable by someone or other: realistic characters are flawed, and flaws make people judge you. Take a look at yourself: would you be a likable character? I know I wouldn’t be, especially in my teen years. Teen me was like a bitchier Jessica Darling with no friends and no social life. The amount that no one would want to read that book is legendary, and everyone would have one-starred it for the heroine being a monster bitch (not to mention mega-boring).
The moment a character has real flaws, it opens up the door to someone finding the character unlikable. What I see most frequently are heroines described as unlikable for being judgmental, bitchy, or violent, all qualities that aren’t encouraged in women by society. Hmmmm. Unlikable may just be code for “doesn’t fit into gender norms.” It’s true that I don’t see the likable/unlikable dynamic come up as often with male MCs, perhaps because there’s not that sense in society that man has to be likable to be worthwhile. Generally, I only mention unlikable in relation to characters to try to fight it and say “no, this is a good thing” for the heroines I know are going to get that label. I’m not sure if that helps or makes the whole thing worse, honestly.
The problem is largest in first person novels, where it’s you sitting down and getting everything directly from the main character, all in that one voice. If you find the main character off-putting, it just doesn’t work most of the time. In third person, you’ll still know the character is judgmental, but in third person you get to enjoy their every judgmental thought. I have trouble imagining that anyone would come off too well if others were let in on their thoughts. Even eliminating the stream of conscious mess and focusing on the plot relevant stuff, I know that I at least have a tendency to jump to conclusions and then have to go revise.
I’m not entirely sure what my point here is, except to recognize what unlikable really means and to consider whether that’s important in the context of the book or not. Rather than just designating a character unlikable, specify what about their voice or their behavior rubbed you the wrong way, as that will help others decide if they might like the book. Plus, remember that you, too, would probably be an unlikable character.