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?) ☕