January 22nd, 2012

Unlikable Characters

I’ve been working on a fairly grim new story. A few of my early readers, while they said good things about the story as a whole, were unhappy with the choices the characters made and, while they felt the choices and their results were honest and believeable, wished for better behaviour the fictional folk within the story.

No one has suggested I change these things necessarily, but they have wondered about how easy it’ll be to sell, pointing out that many people don’t like to read about unlikable characters.

It was a revelatory moment for me. People don’t like to read about characters they don’t like? Well, really? Yes, really–what sells a lot is, I suppose, more slanted towards the hero/villain market than the protagonist/antagonist one. Of course there’s always Macbeth, Wuthering Heights, anything by Martin Amis…but really, most of the time, yeah, likeable is what people like. I know this is true.


But the other stuff, those other people with their bad behaviour, moral standards at variance to mine, bad spelling and poor table manners–fascinating! People I don’t like–I usually need to avoid sitting next to them on the bus lest they start making fun of my hair or expounding upon libertarianism. But in fiction, I can run through a logic that, while not mine, is *like* mine, and end up at fantastically different place. I am interested in thinking, reasoning, not particularly stupid people (stupid is too easy; it’s a one-word answer) that do things that I think are bad. To just say they are bad, and dismiss them with that other one-word answer, is to say it’s not worth trying to understand hate, or violence, or viciousness, or whatever.

Which is why I’m not interested in amorality–if you don’t know the difference between right and wrong, how can your choice to do wrong be an interesting one? There is a small but thriving genre of serial-killer thrillers written in part or entirely from the point of view of the killer, as he or she relishes the killing and never ever analyzes her choices. I read a few too many of these as part of a job I had, and consider them tantamount to snuff pornography; I certainly didn’t learn anything.

I am interested in immorality–people who do things I consider wrong because of an alternative version of morality or a view of extenuating circumstances or some other thing going on in their heads that makes the issue less than black and white. My objection to treating characters as villains in fiction is that limits the conversation to how others see these folks; we never see them as they see themselves. Because no one is ever not the hero of their own story, no matter how villainous they may seem from the outside. And I truly think no one thinks, or not for very long, “I am a bad person and what I am doing now has no moral justification.” I am interested in the justifications we all find for the compromises we make.

Which is why I am eager to read and write about people who behave in ways I find abhorrent, who forgive themselves for all of it, and never see the error of their ways–I want to know why, and how. Not all the time, of course–sometimes all I want is to read about is a sweet young book editor who can’t find some of her tax forms and eats too much chocolate, but at the end of the day is kind to her cat and her fiance and is rewarded for her efforts with a really nice new printer. I really hope someone is writing that book.

But other times, when I am feeling strong, I am looking for books that ask me to stretch beyond myself and my own petty concerns, and discover something I didn’t already know about the human condition, even if the new knowledge is uncomofortable or even unpleasant. I’m not saying my work does that…but I want it to. Isn’t that what fiction is for?

13 Responses to “Unlikable Characters”

  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    But is it what the fiction writer is for? If you go too far with it, and if the literate public is very much interested in agreeing with every thought and concern you touch but ultimately mostly interested in coasting minimally but comfortably along, do you risk being judged tainted, not to be associated with, for too profound an exploration with sordid unpleasantness? You come out of the heart of darkness, and seem … putrid. Changed. Someone quick take you to the stall for some base labor work.

  • Kerry says:

    Sometimes though unlikeable people are much less interesting than you might give them credit for…

  • Rebecca says:

    Patrick, I worry about this, but I’m guess that most folks that find the work too dark would stop reading, and judge the book, not me. Or perhaps I’m only extrapolating from how *I* read, and I would be judged. Either way, I guess I’d lose readers…which is part of what I’m worrying about here.

    Kerry, absolutely–being a jerk is not a reason *to* write about someone, it’s just not a reason *not* to. To populate fiction, I think we should choose the most fascinating people, period–jerks or not, notwithstanding.

  • Scott Watson says:

    Isn’t there a worry of cliche? The jerk is an archetype and can’t the heart of darkness be rather predictible? As my wife says most bankers don’t see themselves as rich. I’m guessing most unlikeable characters don’t believe they are unlikeable. They probably think they’re awesome…or bad ass awesome.

  • Kerry says:

    Is it because I think I’m awesome that I’m so unlikeable, I wonder??

  • Rebecca says:

    Most bankers don’t think they are rich, models think they have big thighs, and no one out of everyone I have ever met in the universe thinks they were popular in high-school. This self-blindness is part of what I find so interesting–how to show someone who is proud of their awesomeness as being distinctly non-awesome.

  • Jeff Bursey says:

    “No one has suggested I change these things necessarily, but they have wondered about how easy it’ll be to sell, pointing out that many people don’t like to read about unlikable characters.”

    Get new readers, RR. And write what _you_ want. People have already judged you, as a writer, girlfriend, employee, woman on a bus… If you were to pay attention to all those opinions you’d be unable to do anything that’s yours.

    Let those readers write their own stories. Without risk, what’s a writer’s life and art going to amount to? Art over commerce is a choice you have to make for yourself.

    I sympathize with you. I’ve been ‘advised.’ Friends told me I’d not be able to write my book. Ignore almost everyone.

  • Scott Watson says:

    I wonder if we are more self-blind now thanks to increase in distractions provided by technology. Or is self-blindness just a different flavor now?

    As an aside, I have three high school friends who feel they were more popular in high school than they are now.

    I would only add to Jeff’s comment. Write what you want as long as the grammar’s done reasonably good…er…well :)

  • Rebecca says:

    Jeff, I appreciate your perspective and I think writing whatever one wants is a large part of writing at all. I do, however, think it is worth thinking about what people want to read–not while writing, but after. There are certain core things I want to write and write about, but I also want people out there in the world to be able to read and understand them–if they can’t or won’t, I may decide to live with the loss, but I may not if there’s something I can do with my work to make it more accessible without compromising–I want to make that decision consciously.

    Scott, in my humble opinion self-blindness is eternal–humanity doesn’t strike me as becoming more or less inattentive, just in different ways…

  • Jeff Bursey says:

    Rebecca, if you’ve written something, and then think of what people want to read, then you’ve done the important thing first, no? And, how can you write what “they” may want to read without already thinking of them? Or perhaps I’m not understanding your point here.

    Who you’re writing for is people who read. Let them decide if, for them, you’re readable, etc. If you aren’t, is it their loss or yours or anyone’s? I can’t stand Mavis Gallant’s work, but I understand some of it. She doesn’t appeal to me. It’s no loss to her or me that I don’t read her.

    Rest easy with yourself and your choices. Let those readers you refer to find others to read, if they’re dissatisfied; new people will come to you. The only constant is you, and after all, that’s a pretty good thing.

  • Rebecca says:

    Absolutely–the important thing is writing, and that’s something I do for myself, to work out and think through all the stuff in the world I don’t understand. But to publish–literary, “to make public”–is an act of communication, and I *do* think about how that will work. I can never fortell exactly how my stories will be read, nor can I convert anyone who understands what I’m doing and simply doesn’t care for it–that is an honest, unobscured reaction if there ever was one. But I don’t want to leave out someone who might have gotten what I’m trying to say because I’ve made it too obscure, too personal, too much something you’d have to be living inside my head with me to make sense of.

    Does that make sense?

  • Jeff Bursey says:

    Yes, it does make sense, Rebecca. I think we can’t predict what people will understand our writing, so some are going to be left out regardless of all our care. I’ve read things that made no sense to me because they were obscure, but years later they made sense. The book didn’t change, nor did the author’s intention, but I did. That’s one of the risks we run.

  • Julia says:

    Rebecca — have you read Jonathan Franzen’s article about Edith Wharton in this week’s issue of the New Yorker? It might be of interest to you — he raises the question of feeling sympathy for characters who really are, often on fundamental levels, unlikeable, but yet the reader feels (sometimes devastatingly) drawn to them. It’s a good read and relates to some of the questions you’re delving into here… As long as a character invites narrative sympathy (well, i guess the author is doing the narrative part :), almost anything goes, including murder (Raskolnikov) and various other abhorrent behaviors… Read the piece and thought of you!

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