On Unlikable Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about unlikable characters lately.

I’m about halfway through Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist; in one chapter, “Not Here to Make Friends,” she addresses the issue of likable and unlikable characters. She talks about why we’re drawn to unlikable characters, why we prefer unlikable male characters over female characters, and why the idea of needing to be imaginary friends with every literary protagonist is too high a bar to set. She writes,

Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.

Unlikable characters usually involve some level of unapologetic candor that typically isn’t socially acceptable, in our world or theirs. Likable characters (usually women) attempt to conform to an “ideal world where people behave in ideal ways,” whereas “unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading,” Gay writes.

And so in thinking about unlikable characters and why I should be embracing them, I’ve been reading more of them. I’ve read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, featuring the conniving and usually cold Mathilde, I’ve read the (too?) often talked-about Girl on the Train, featuring a vast array of unlikable characters. And, of course, I’ve read Gone Girl. 

As I was going through these books, I came across Willa Paskin’s article, “What’s So Bad About Likable Women?” I loved it, because all of the points she brought up were the same arguments I was making with myself. While I prefer likable characters (as Paskin says, “I would still rather re-read Pride and Prejudice than the Lydia Bennet story”), a lot of likable characters follow the same tired design. They have “adorable flaws.” They’re klutzes. They complain about their looks but they’re always conventionally beautiful. They’re “not like other girls.” They basically fulfill the “cool girl monologue” performed by one of the most popular unlikable characters in literature, Amy Dunne.

amy dunne gone girl
If you’re interested, Julia Seales at Bustle did a roundup of “The 15 Best Female Villains in Literature…” which includes Amy.

gone girl script

If we’re being honest, there is no objective answer to this debate. People are gonna like the characters they’re gonna like. For me, the answer is a happy medium: fun, likable characters that still have flaws, like Ron Weasley or Mindi Lahiri. I think Hayley Atwell inadvertently addressed this sentiment well when she said,

There’s no such thing as perfection, and that is, I think, the beauty and potential of human beings: we have the capacity for greatness and we have the capacity for darkness, and it’s up to us to decide which path we want to take.

That’s the kind of character I want to read.


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