On Loving Unlikeable Characters in Fiction


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?

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4 Responses to “ On Loving Unlikeable Characters in Fiction ”

  1. I love this post and I totally agree. My favorite characters, in fiction and in my own work, are rarely the ones I'd ever want to spend any time with. Perfect people tell boring stories. I think there's also definitely an element of sexism to the Girls and Young Adult criticism. Where were all these critics claiming Entourage was a horrible, unrealistic show because the male characters were unlikeable?

    As for my favorite, hmm... Well, my two favorite books are Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, and I think it's universally agreed that the most engaging character by far is Steerpike, who is just a vile human being :)

  2. Ooooh both are excellent choices. You have an interesting point about the sexist aspect, which definitely applies to Girls and Young Adult, but I find the case where this is most a problem is Confederacy of Dunces. People cannot handle their hatred of Ignatius J. Reilly.

  3. And yes, Steerpike really is the sexiest evildoer :)

  4. I have a tendancy to get bored and stop reading things with protagonists I don't like. I *do* like reading things with characters who are flawed but have light showing through in enough moments to give me faith in them; this is what makes, for example, House watchable for me, the moments when he's *not* being a git. I'm also keen on watching the fall of characters who are villains but they kind of didn't mean to be (like Javert in Les Mis, the Phantom from Phantom of the Opera, or especially Londo from B5). But I'm afraid I get turned off if a character doesn't show at least some sort of sympathetic trait early enough; I just simply don't care enough about what happens to them. I'd rather spend my time reading books with characters I feel more of a connection with. I never finished reading Thomas covenant for this reason, and despite persevering for a while, I just never really liked Game Of Thrones, largely for the horrible downbeatness of everything. I wasn't keen on 'The Girl Who Waited' in Doctor Who for this reason, despite actually liking all thre characters; just not the sort of downbeat tone I want from my Who. I guess it depends on why you're watching/reading something and what you want to get out of it?


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