Nobody’s perfect, and who wants to read a novel in which none of the characters are flawed?
To me, the unlikable characters are the screw ups, the ones that don’t always know why they’re messing everything up, or even the characters that are self-sabotaging and know it. That’s my favorite kind of character. I see complexity in an their choices, and that means there’s room for meaningful growth. That’s what keeps me reading.
I’m the kind of person that sees my own mess-ups as huge, unforgettable sins. It’s not an attractive quality (one I’m trying to work through), but it’s the honest truth. For most of my life, I’ve held myself to a higher standard than I’ve held anyone else. It’s exhausting. Maybe that’s why when I see a character who is messing up monumentally, I see a little bit of myself in them. Their intentions probably aren’t bad – most people have understandable intentions, but their actions are so obviously wrong that it hurts to watch them sometimes.
If we stop and think about it, it’s the unlikable characters that should help us see our faults and encourage us to change. It’s true that a well done “good-but-flawed” character may be able to do the same, but I argue that the unlikable character is even more effective because they draw up so many emotions in us. They help motivate us because they resonate with us, even if the resonation is negative. Fiction can be a mirror for the reader. We learn empathy because we see part of ourselves in the story that’s being told. This also plays on the idea that the traits we dislike the most in other people are the traits we dislike about ourselves. For me, that’s definitely true, and it comes to mind when I read a character that is on the unlikable side. In many books, a likable character represents an ideal – a young protagonist who feels unlovable but in reality, two attractive dudes are obviously pining after her, for example – but an unlikable character represents a more common experience. To compare with the previous example, they’re the characters that feel unlovable because they truly possess flaws – they’re distrusting, make selfish choices, or make choices that others don’t understand.
On a broader scale, I cherish any book that I see part of myself in. I think that’s what books are for – they allow us to see ourselves in other people. That small amount of mirroring that we see in a novel helps us understand our humanity more deeply. We see our hurts and triumphs in a different light. It’s not about the supposed narcissism of wanting to “see myself” in a work of fiction. It’s the way it makes me feel more connected to the people and world around me because it tells me I’m not alone. I empathize with issues I will never experience because books help me imagine what it would be like to experience them myself. That’s one of the reasons I keep reading.
What was the last unlikable character you read and why did you dislike them? Let me know your thoughts.
Poet. Reader. Lifelong Student.