I feel a little bit behind the times with this discussion of unlikable characters, but it’s a post I’ve been wanting to do since before I got too busy with grad school to write discussion posts, so here goes… When I was thinking about this post I read an article pointing out that you’re not actually going to be friends with the characters in a book either way. I can’t find the exact article again but Roxanne Gay eloquently makes the same point here. That was a point that stuck with me and made me wonder why people might mind reading about unlikable characters at all.
For me, the answer to this question is that I don’t mind reading about unlikable characters. What I mind is reading about characters I can’t relate to. That doesn’t mean every book has to have a character like me. It means an author has to convince me of their characters’ motivations.
If a book is full of characters doing things that strike me as stupid, immoral, or just rude without a good reason, that’s going to bother me. For example, in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, I don’t get Ripley. I’m not sure what makes him tick. As a result, I didn’t completely buy into the story. However, Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm is a modern book with a similar plot that I loved. The main character made some choices that reminded me of Ripley, but the difference was that she had a clear backstory providing her motivation.
Characters doing things that seem completely out of character for them without a clear motivation can also be a problem. Some of my favorite authors write books I love because they do the complete opposite of this. Jojo Moyes in particular often writes characters who have such clear personalities, their actions strike me as exactly what her characters would do if they were real.
In either case, whether characters are hard to relate to because their motivations are unclear or unbelievable, it can really make a book not work for me. I don’t have to like any of the characters, but I better understand at least our protagonist.
Do you mind reading about unlikable characters? If so, what bothers you about them?