Why you don’t like not liking characters

A couple of weeks ago, Dan Swensen posted a brief essay on Surly Muse dealing with one of my favorite topics: the unlikable protagonist.  Broadly speaking, I agree with almost everything Dan says on the subject.  Does a character have to be “likable” or sympathetic?  Absolutely not.  World literature is laden with characters of dubious morals and repellent personalities who are nonetheless rich, rewarding fictional constructions.  However, I have to admit (as nearly everyone will) that, even though I know in my head that a character doesn’t have to be likable in order to be a great character, there are easily dozens, if not hundreds, of stories that I don’t really like very much.  Why?  Obviously: I didn’t like the characters.  The key issue raised by our premise, then, isn’t if characters have to be likable, but why unlikable characters work in some stories and not in others.

As subjective as one’s reaction to stories can be, the “likability” of a character is one of the least objective criteria you can use when evaluating a work.  That isn’t to say, however, that you’re barred from a thoughtful analysis of how and why that character doesn’t work for you.  Here are several questions you can ask whilst ruminating on whether or not a story works precisely because of the character being unlikable.

Does the use of the character provide any particular insight?

Not every story is meant to be a penetrating symposium on the human condition, but quite often, a serious story will foreground a jerky character because that particular kind of story can really only get across its point via a jerk.  Dan mentioned Charles Foster Kane, a great example.  What about Hamlet?  Richard III?  Milton’s Satan?  Alex DeLarge?  Neil LaBute and David Mamet also specialize in anchoring stories in crummy, venal, manipulative characters, yet they are among the more acclaimed moralists of the last few decades.  One thing all of these characters have in common — besides being antiheroes or outright villains — is that the authors all use the characters as vehicles to tackle spiritual, moral, and psychological scenarios in ways that just wouldn’t be possible with heroic or more “normal” protagonists.  When the point of doing a certain story is to expand the mind and enlarge the human spirit, sometimes telling the story of a thorough jackass is the only way to go.

Does the story’s perspective on the character share your own worldview?

It’s a lot easier to swallow a bilious protagonist when you know he’s going to get his comeuppance in the end.  Sometimes a hateful character is reformed or softened by the end of the story: think of Joss Whedon’s development of Cordelia and Spike.  Whatever the case, unlikable characters are usually more tolerable when it seems that the storytelling doesn’t endorse them or forgive them for being pills.  A lot of people genuinely loved Vic Mackey in The Shield, and those people are terrifying; the rest of us loved how he was handled as a character.  The key difference was the fact that the show was about the consequences of his actions and the degree to which he internalized the results.  Since the show was obsessed with justice and ethics in a deeply compromised world, centering the show on an fascist, corrupt cop — who also happened to do a lot of good in his time — made sense.  Even real-life narratives fit into this mold.  It was a lot easier to read a biography of Chairman Mao last year when it was clear from the prose that the authors despised the man for the actions they were describing.  A more equivocating account might have been more frustrating because I would have perceived the author’s approach as moral blindness.  What’s important to remember is that there is often a distinction between personally disliking a character and getting the feeling that the story itself has an affinity for that character.  Passing judgment on the story because it features an unsympathetic protagonist isn’t the same thing as indicting the worldview of the story.  Quite often, I find that I dislike characters that are intended to be likable simply because I am diametrically opposed (philosophically, morally, temperamentally) to the worldview of the storyteller.  In that case, it’s not the characters themselves that are designed to be unlikable, so much as the fact that I’m too narrow-minded or obstreperous to go along with the story’s point of view on those characters.

Does the story create empathy for the character?

As I mentioned in the previous section, sometimes we like or dislike a character because we share a worldview with them.  But in some stories, the point is not to persuade you to a certain way or thinking, nor is it necessary for you to be of that persuasion at all.  Sometimes we are told the story of a person that is unlikable purely because the author wants to remind us that even unlikable people are worth of understanding and compassion.  Not to say that they are sympathetic, per se.  Again, a distinction should be made between understanding someone better and identifying with them.  In real life, I think it’s easy to forget that the people you don’t like don’t think of themselves as unlikable.  Very few of us get up every day vowing to make someone hate our guts before brunch.  The act of empathy is a very generous, very human trait.  More often than not, it reminds us of our own faults, or how easily we could become what we hate.  In my own case, I often find that the traits I most despise are projected from the scaly walls of my own sinful soul onto the personalities of other people.  Reminding myself that they face the same challenges as I do — both in terms of outside obstacles and the interior limits of our own awareness of the world — reminds me that not every person I deem to be “unlikable” is necessarily worthy of my contempt.  Successful acts of empathy are very tricky to pull off in narratives, because they must require the audience to walk a mile in another’s shoes without asking them to fill them.  In The Good Shepherd, we witness the slow, insidious corruption of a basically decent man, even as he spearheads the creation of an agency that is, in theory, dedicated to the preservation of American freedom.  The price of that freedom is his soul.  By empathizing with him as he makes his choices, though not endorsing those choices, we are invited to reflect upon the price of our freedom as a whole, and whether our national soul is in danger.  This concept is closely connected with the previous two, but it’s very important to the consideration of the validity of the unlikable character as a device.  The act of an audience member’s projection can be as much a tool in the storyteller’s toolbox as narrative structure.

Does the narrative structure affect your perception of the character?

When I read Ulysses, I didn’t much like Stephen Dedalus.  I didn’t much like Leopold Bloom, either, though he was a bit more approachable.  Altogether, I don’t remember really liking anybody in the book, but then, liking the characters wasn’t really the point, was it?  Beyond the particular themes Joyce was developing, he was also experimenting with the very structure of narrative, using Homeric epic as a rough organization rubric, but splintering representations of perspectives into different levels of consciousness: personal, authorial, even national.  The innovating structure of the novel required a lot more work to get to know the characters than most conventional narratives; it was simultaneously more intimate and more distancing, with his technique providing a direct line to the feelings and thoughts of his characters and their Dublin, but also presenting all that in a way that reminded me of the narrative’s status as a piece of craft.  As a result, conventional “likability” was completely sidelined as one of my concerns as a reader.  In different media, structure changes shape.  A novel that is not part of a series is most often a self-contained story conforming to a certain, formulaic shape.  Movies frequently follow the same pattern.  In each case, the factors I’ve previously discussed are often the deciding factors in how much I like/dislike a character.  Narratives that break from the conventional in any medium — as in Ulysses — usually make likability less of a concern than what the craft has to say.  The one medium where likability (one way or the other) plays the biggest factor may be television.  A show without a set end point is one that depends the most heavily upon the goodwill of the viewers, and that goodwill must most often be won by the writers and performers.  I can name several very successful series I don’t particularly care for on the basis of the main characters’ likability — Seinfeld and Breaking Bad among them — but that likability is as much a part of the format of each show as anything else.  Unlike a novel or a film, when I begin watching a TV program, I usually have no idea how long the show will last, what kind of arc each character will have, or even if I’m going to get a proper finale.  Though most dramas follow season long arcs (as do many sitcoms), the nature of an ongoing franchise is to keep things as up in the air as possible, the better with which to spin out the show’s longevity.  That means that if I don’t really like a character, I will never know exactly what will ultimately be done with him/her, so I don’t know precisely what insight or worldview will emerge.  That’s part of the excitement, of course: the nature of television production makes it more mercurial and full of surprises.  But that also means that a character’s drawn-out descent into the moral abyss can become tedious and grating if spun out too long (as in Breaking Bad).  At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, it can also result in a thoroughly irritating character like Cordelia metamorphosing into a very tragic and sympathetic heroine, perhaps even moreso because longtime viewers will remember how she started.

Does the character entertain me?

Duh.  Sometimes it’s fun to spend time with a jackass.  They’re the ones with the caustic quips, the dangerous allure, the sardonic insight, and (almost inevitably) the carefully-concealed, bruised, withered heart of gold.  The line between “insufferable” and “riotous” has everything to do with one’s own predilections, of course.  As I mentioned earlier, some folks just dig Seinfeld.  A few months ago, I read a novel called Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer, in which the protagonist (in order to get out of a previous deal in which he sold his soul to Satan) makes a deal with Satan to exchange the souls of 100 people for his own.  As you might surmise, this is not a nice fellow.  He’s callous, arrogant, and hilariously full of bon mots directed at the sea of stupidity lapping around him.  As another character observes, he’s the most evil kind of evil: the kind of person who does evil things because He Believes He’s Working for a Just Cause.  And, as you might have guessed, you still sort of root for him.  For one thing, because he’s up against Satan.  Sure, tricking 100 people into selling their souls is a nasty thing to do, but what’s 100 souls against the millions Satan has taken?  Plus, let’s get real here: it’s the Devil.  You almost never want the Devil to win, even when the people fighting the Devil are pretty bad characters themselves.  At least, that’s the gambit of the author.  To hedge his bets, though, you can easily guess that Mr. Cabal isn’t all bad.  But even if he were bad, I still would have enjoyed the novel.  It was simply too funny and inventive.  Though I could advocate the book on loftier grounds (such as earlier categories like insight, empathy, worldview, not to mention sheer quality of prose), the bottom line is that he’s a great character.  Great in the literary sense, and great in that I-personally-like-reading-about-him-because-it-gives-me-the-giggles sense.

All of the above or something else?

Obviously, each of the previous questions overlaps with others, and there are undoubtedly other factors I failed to highlight.  The important thing to remember is that there are always sound reasons for wrapping a narrative around character you don’t care about.  Not every story can pull it off, but in most cases, the failure of a story to pull it off isn’t just because the character is unlikable — it’s usually because of other, larger failures on the part of the story, of which a repellent character is the most pungent symptom.  Broadening your approach to a narrative to figure out what those underlying factors are usually makes for a more valuable experience than just saying, “I didn’t care about the character”: it’ll heighten your understanding of your own priorities and preferences.  If the road to self-awareness is paved with unlikable characters, then, baby, I’ve walked a thousand miles in bare feet, and I’ve barely gotten started.  (Why you don’t like not liking lame metaphors is another topic entirely, and it should not color your view of my post at all, y’hear?) ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

7 responses to “Why you don’t like not liking characters

  • Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

    This is great stuff, Matt. Not long after writing that piece, I realized there was a gold mine of interesting material to mine. I am looking at doing a whole series of posts on unlikeable characters. Maybe you would be willing to guest-post one for me. :)

    • mjschneider

      Thanks, Dan. I loved your original post, and I didn’t have time to comment when you first did it, so, uh… well, yeah. Here’s my response. Ta-da! I’d be honored to to a guest-post. I’ll try to think of an unlikable character on whom I’m worthy to comment.

  • Joni

    I’m quite glad that my friend Dan Swensen shared the link to this post. You’ve articulated some of my own opinions quite well.

    Cordelia, for instance, went from being a least favorite character to one of my favorites in the Whedonverse. She started out as someone who was truly unlikable but became more sympathetic (sometimes grudgingly sympathetic) over time and finally the tragic heroine you mention above. In some ways hers is the most interesting and compelling long term character arc of the lot. Spike instantly fell into the entertaining bad-guy position for me, and became more and more sympathetic (and sometimes pathetic) over time.

    I also really enjoyed Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer. I love stories where the author writes such an enjoyable, but ultimately pretty terrible bad guy, especially when they make me laugh so much in the process.

    I’ll probably make some internet enemies by saying this, but in terms of characters who ruined a story, I think Lost is probably the most recent example I can come up with. The first season or two were great fun, watching the characters running around learning about their situation. Eventually, though, the progression of the show slowed down and the characters I liked got less screen time, and the focus on the hyper-irritating characters was too much for me. Having heard in advance that Nathan Fillion would make a guest appearance, I slogged through until then, but after that I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d had enough. Jack, Sawyer, Kate and many of the others had become so deeply irritating that I just couldn’t be bothered with the story anymore.

    • mjschneider

      Thank you for reading and for the comment! I am definitely not one of those potential OWL enemies of whom you speak. I had more problems with LOST than just the characters, but I think it’s a solid example of the kind of show with long-term structural problems. That is, they didn’t know what they were going to do with the characters when they started, and since the show was going for that particular kind of angsty drama vibe, they kept having the characters do reversal upon reversal, with the occasional headslappingly dumb decision thrown in for good measure. You know, to keep the tension high. Or something. One could argue that the whole point of good drama is to have people make bad choices, or that deeply flawed characters are more realistic… but with a show like LOST, which is driven forward by narrative gimmicks and macguffins galore, you really need all that angst hitched to an identifiable arc that makes sense. I think a couple of characters were handled quite well. Ben Linus, for my money, is a prime specimen of the kind of unlikable character that is ultimately more compelling than a lot of the more conventionally “likable” characters. His characterization was consistent throughout the show, his reversals made a kind of sense, and (this made a big difference for me) his arc is redemptive in a way that was far more meaningful than the arc for many of other other characters that weren’t as traditionally villainous.

  • David

    Excellent thoughts, and quite relevant, too. I’m writing my review of Catherynne Valente’s Habitation of the Blessed and am trying to figure out just why I didn’t like her characters and why that seems to matter to me, even though she’s trying to use them for specific reasons. I think it’s because I dislike different things about her characters than she does. There’s a worldview disconnect between our minds, and I can’t get behind the message of her story the way I can Charles Foster Kane’s.

    One of my favorite characters in fiction is Aquila from Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers, despite the fact that he is very difficult to like. He’s not a villain, and never tries to do things he thinks are wrong, but he can be so casually insensitive and cold to others that he blocks out the world and has very few friends, and none that are very close. But Sutcliff’s brilliance is to show us thirty-some years of his life, so we know exactly why he is the way he is, and how he wants to change even though he doesn’t know how. He’s prickly, but you deeply empathize with him because you can see your own faults reflected in him.

    In general, I much prefer likable characters, ones with some maturity, wisdom, and humility to them. I tend to find good people more interesting than bad ones, as it is a greater struggle to remain virtuous in a fallen world than to go with the flow. But I appreciate tragedy when done right, and unlikable characters when handled with good purpose.

    After all, the Bible itself is full of unlikable protagonists that aren’t necessarily villains: Jonah might be one. And it’s not afraid of tarnishing its heroes. Would we love King David so much if we didn’t know that he was just as susceptible to sin as we are? That Moses, in his passion for his people and the Lord, nonetheless fell prey to fear and doubt and arrogance even late in his life? That Peter, Barnabas, and Paul, great servants of Christ though they were, nonetheless argued together and at various times had to be corrected by each other? No human can attain perfection in this world, and it feels silly when we read characters who are portrayed with anything near moral perfection. That’s why the example of Jesus is so radical and important — He arrives, a flash of true perfection as could not have been imagined by a human mind, and is powerfully real, transformatively real, because of His perfection.

    …Is “transformatively” a real word? I may have just made it up.

    • mjschneider

      Thanks for the comment! I’ll be heading over to your blog shortly to comment on your review of The Habitation of the Blessed, but I wanted to touch on a few things here first.

      Generally speaking, I also tend to prefer likable characters, what I define as “likable” is perhaps idiosyncratic. I lurve Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, in large part because I love Harry Dresden. He’s deeply flawed and has some very dark qualities, but he also has exactly my sense of humor, and he is one of those people that strive to be virtuous in a fallen world. I also like antiheroes. I read John Constantine: Hellblazer for quite a while (back when I had the cash to collect comics), and I loved him as a character. Didn’t always like him. But he always made sense, and he had his good parts. Not to mention that I really dig shady, manipulative characters with the Greater Good in mind. The Doctor’s another good example. He’s a hero, more or less, but I don’t always like him.

      Then, of course, there’s the Bible. Tons of great, unlikable characters. You gave some fantastic examples. I actually think King Saul is one of the best. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew here (and I certainly don’t intend to give offense), but I’d like to posit the concept of God the Father as a bit of an unlikable character. This isn’t to say that I don’t love God, but a lot of OT stories sure make him out to be a rather fearful, unfathomable tyrant (I use those words non-pejoratively). He ordered his chosen people to commit genocide on the native inhabitants of Canaan. He ordered Abraham to murder his only son. He cursed the entirety of humanity for the sin of two people. He killed the firstborn of Egypt to make a point to the Pharaoh. The list goes on. My point isn’t to argue that God isn’t good or just, but that, if I’m honest, the God of the Bible has a sense of morality that is completely beyond the scope of the human conscience. I think the “Buddy Christ” view of God that a lot of churches project is a bit dishonest about the Judeo-Christian tradition. It feels more real to me that God would be the most complicated, perplexing (terrifying, if you will; again, not in a pejorative way) concept in the world, with a lot of qualities that are very uncomfortable for us to acknowledge. To keep all those unlikable aspects in mind at the same time as the image of Christ on the cross presents a very complex picture indeed. To me, it’s more interesting and more awe-inspiring. The idea that the God who wiped out Jericho because it was in the way can be the same God that suffered and died in proportion to the sin of humanity is, in itself, a kind of test of faith. It puts the phrase “Merciful Father” in a different perspective, and asks me to imagine a being in whom all these aspects exist in harmony. I simply can’t do it, but that’s kind of the point: God is beyond comprehension. Believing that, even with all of the horrible things he’s done, he loves us all, is a marvelous thing, in the purest sense of the word.

  • Book Review: “The Habitation of the Blessed” by Catherynne Valente « The Warden's Walk

    […] Now, just because the characters are unlikable is not reason enough to dislike a story – Matt Schneider at Catecinem has an excellent discussion of the value of unlikable protagonists in ce…. The problem here is that I dislike characters that Valente wants me to like. Immortal, bizarre, […]

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