What do Girls, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Young Adult, and Confederacy of Dunces all have in common? These works, broadly considered to be the most polarizing (and challenging) of our time, all feature protagonists that most of us would happily lock inside a vehicle set on cruise control over the side of a very tall cliff. I, however, would at least wait until the story's over.
The unlikable protagonist sets up a delicious tension in any work of art; we don't like them, so we automatically dismiss everything they hold to be true, until slowly, almost imperceptibly, we start to recognize a little bit of ourselves in them. Once that happens, we can't help but hate ourselves, just a little: "If I see this much of myself in that character, how much more might be there that I'm not seeing?"
You see this most readily in critiques of Lena Dunham's fabulously horrible Hannah Horvath, in Girls. "I would never behave this selfishly, therefore I find it impossible to believe that Hannah could act in such a myopic manner," reads so many comment threads.
However, even by making that comment, you show that something about Hannah's character mirrors your own, unsettling you in a way that makes you rush to dismiss that connection by stating that her character is "impossible in reality."
The common trait of the unlikable protagonist is a gargantuan level of self-involvement. Who wants to admit such a quality to themselves? More to the point, who can even recognize that quality in themselves?
In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays a character who's morally vacant and miles beyond redemption, though she's wonderfully inventive in ways to destroy her life and the lives of those around her. We applaud her creativity and complete lack of self-awareness, even as we pray for her come-uppance.
But something strange happens; we learn that her humanity is not destroyed, merely suppressed. It's been beaten down so far that it only surfaces for a second before receding back into her, where it will likely remain. And so we arrive at the painful truth: she's completely self-aware, but circumstances have taught her that this is how to live in the world.
The truth about the unlikable protagonist is that he or she holds a mirror to our unknown selves, and makes us take a closer look at our morality and our idea of humanity. Eva Katchatourian, in Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, suffers horrible consequences because of her monstrous son's actions.
She didn't commit the crime, but she receives ample punishment. But we don't like her, so we feel she deserves it. What does that say about us, that we accept that the act of selfishness is as deserving of punishment as the brutal murder of scores of schoolchildren?
This is why I love the unlikable protagonist, and why that same character can be so off-putting to others. They take us to the dark places within our souls, forcing us to confront them instead of shrugging them off or cloaking them under a thin veneer of "morality" or "redemption." It takes all types to make the world go around, and I believe these stories arm us with a smidgen of empathy. And usually they provide us with a hell of a lot of laughs.
Who's your favorite unlikable character? Or do you find this type of fiction unreadable/unwatchable?