Doing Discussions: Do You Mind Unlikeable Characters?

August 25, 2016 Uncategorized 21


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?

21 Responses to “Doing Discussions: Do You Mind Unlikeable Characters?”

  1. BookerTalk

    It does depend for me on why they are unlike able. Is it because the writer hasn’t done a good enough job to make them realistic even if not likeable. In which case I might not even finish the book Or is the character deliberately constructed to be dislikeable so as to provoke a reaction – maybe set out to be a controversial figure whose view of the world sets up a conflict that is which case I’m likely tired on even if I don’t agree with them.

    • DoingDewey

      Agreed! A character who is so unlikable I don’t even find them believable or who I dislike because they make decisions I find unbelievable is a huge turn off for me.

  2. Valorie Hallinan

    I don’t usually mind. Hard to see how there could be a rich body of literature without the full range of humanity and morality. Even if yore approaching lit as entertainment.

    • DoingDewey

      True! I love that reading lets me learn about people who are different from myself or anyone I know and that includes people I might not actually like if I knew them.

  3. Sarah's Book Shelves

    I love reading unlikeable characters! I just read Dear Mr. M…Herman Koch’s latest and he writes unlikeable characters so well. I think a key to unlikable characters is that they say/do things that absolutely have crossed the depths of everyone’s minds at some point in time, but usually regular people don’t say them out loud or act on them.

    The one thing that makes unlikeable characters tough for me is if they’re the narrators and they’re annoying (Liane Moriarty’s books are the first things that come to mind). I don’t like being stuck in a totally annoying person’s head for 3 days. But, unlikeable and annoying are 2 very different things in my book.

    Finally, I think unlikeable characters are key to making books interesting!

    • DoingDewey

      Haha, I love Liane Moriarty’s characters but I still get your point. Characters that actively annoy me, especially if they’re the narrator, make it hard for me to enjoy a book too.

      I also think you’re right that unlikeable characters can be some of the most interesting and I do love when authors’ write them well. I hadn’t thought about the possibility that they would be relatable because they represent the darker urges the rest of us have by don’t act on, but I think that could make them especially interesting and unsettling to read about!

  4. Tanya Patrice

    Sometimes I can divorce my feelings about a unlikable characters like in Liar, Justine Larbalesteir, but sometimes I can’t – especially when the character is unlikable because they are whiny and weak.

  5. Katherine

    Depends, and maybe it depends on whether there’s enough story for me to accept an unlikable character. I actually like Tom Ripley, but mostly because I want to see if he’ll get away with, well, whatever he’s up to. Amy from Gone Girl is mentioned in Gay’s piece and she immediately sprung to my mind too. Nick, as well for that matter. That book is about two of the most reprehensible characters I’ve encountered, but I tentatively enjoyed the book because of the story. On the other hand, Holden Caulfield gets no sympathy from me because there’s not enough going on in The Catcher in the Rye for me to really care.

    • DoingDewey

      That makes sense! In general, I’ll tolerate some apects of a book being weaker if something else about the book draws me in anyway – a slow plot if there’s really beautiful writing, for example.

  6. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    You make a fantastic point here. I’ve often said that I have an issue with unlikable main characters, but you’re right that there are times when I don’t mind them – when the author gives me good backstory and motivation. If I can understand the characters’ actions – even if I don’t like them – I enjoy the book.

    • DoingDewey

      Exactly! I actually find it very impressive when an author can make me understand why someone would act in a way I find unlikable and I often consider that a positive thing in a book.

  7. Allison @ The Book Wheel

    “I don’t mind reading about unlikable characters. What I mind is reading about characters I can’t relate to.” – YES. I find there are two categories of unlikeable characters. First, there’s the ones you straight up hate and can’t stop reading about, such as those in Gone Girl. Then there are the ones that I don’t like and can’t relate to, like the ones in The Interestings. In the end, I have to feel SOMETHING, whether it’s recognition or pure hatred, but when I’m ambivalent AND not liking them, it can make for a miserable reading experience.

    • DoingDewey

      Exactly! I particularly agree that hatred is better than ambivalence. To be engaged in a book, I have to care about the characters one way or the other.

  8. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    I think the books I love the best are the ones where I love the characters and want to spend time with them; they become like friends and family to me, and it would be weird to have a friend you didn’t like. But I can appreciate and even enjoy books where I don’t like the characters, as long as they are taking me on a journey that seems worth while for some reason. If I hate the characters and the reading experience is just depressing or dull or pointless or self-indulgent, that’s a sure DNF for me.

    • DoingDewey

      Interesting! I’m wondering if my favorite books are ones where I love the characters too. I definitely have a fondness for heartwarming reads where the characters all help each other. But if I think about the handful of books I’d name as my all-time favorites, they mostly don’t have characters I’d particularly want to be friends with.

  9. Jenny @ Reading the End

    I’ve liked quite a few characters that other people have considered “unlikeable,” so I want to say yes? Yes, I do like them? But there’s a subgenre of unlikeable characters where it’s characters who are nonstop horrible to everyone around them, and I can’t be bothered with those ones. Characters who are constantly nasty aren’t any more realistic/interesting than characters who are constantly sweet and kind. They just get more respect from the literary establishment. :p

    • DoingDewey

      Agreed! Characters who are constantly horrible without a clear motivation are not my cup of tea. I like to think that no one would act horribly way without a good reason and so I just don’t find characters like that believable!

  10. Charlie (The Worm Hole)

    I don’t mind reading about them, though of course it’s difficult. I suppose in literal terms I do mind but couldn’t just read books with likeable characters, there wouldn’t be enough literary scope there for me. As long as the story that surrounds it is good – or at least worth while – then that’s okay.

    • DoingDewey

      Good point! If you truly refused to read about unlikable characters, you’d be shutting yourself off from a ton of fantastic books.

  1. 12 Things Week(ish) –

    […] Doing Discussions: Do You Mind Unlikeable Characters? is one of my favorite bookish discussions this week. I sometimes cannot separate my dislike of a main character from how I feel about the book. […]

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