Friday, March 14, 2014

All the Unlikeable Characters I Love

A couple weeks ago Kelly Jensen from Stacked started an interesting discussion on Twitter about how we use the word "unlikeable" when describing characters and what we really mean by it. This is something Kelly has explored before in things she's written (here and here) as particularly regards female characters. This discussion promoted a thoughtful response from Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy in which she said everything I basically wanted to say on the subject. Particularly, think about your reasons for not liking character. From Liz's post:
"And that’s when “like” is about more than the character and the book: when it’s really about “not liking” rather than liking, and it’s about the character not doing what the reader wants when they want it...What confuses me about some of this is that often, there would be no reason for the book — no plot — if the character did the “right” thing from page 1. Or, that the character is dealing with some tough stuff and their characterization is drive by that — so the judgment is pretty much, they’re handling their personal trauma “wrong.”"

I am a character reader. I have opinions on character. Boy do I have opinions. Honestly though I don't want my characters to be completely likable for this very reason. I love character arcs that involve growth, change, experience, mistakes, falls, and healing. I want to see the absolute worst a character can be contrasted with the best they can be, however that falls out in the context of the story. I have no desire to open a book and "like"-such a bland word-a character from the beginning. Liking has little to with it for me. As does whether or not they're relatable. What matters to me is whether or not the author has made me care about the struggle the character is undergoing. Do I see a human under all that unlikeableness? Do I want to see them make it through to the end despite their mistakes, bad attitude, and general disagreeableness? Then I am all good, and when you see me use that word "unlikeable" to describe a character it is most likely going to by followed by how much I LOVED them. Because unlikeable characters are real. How many people do you know are always likeable? Once you truly really get to know a person, can you ever describe them as likeable? Or do you know too much about them by that point? THAT'S how I want to know my characters. Show me their hearts in all their ugly flawed glory and tell a story from that.

I wil add to this that I do like to see characters who persevere through their brokenness to find at least a little bit of hope. Completely hopeless stories do not tend to ensnare me.

With that caveat here are some of my favorite "unlikeable" characters. Characters who do ugly things, make terrible decisions, and are generally headed for disaster in so many ways.

Pretty much every Melina Marchetta MC, particularly Taylor from Jellicoe Road and Tom from The Piper's Son:

Irene Attolia (my favorite character of all time):

Travis in Something Like Normal by Trish Dollar:

Briony in Chime by Franny Billingsley:

Nyx and Ignifex in Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge: 

Kate in Things I Can't Forget by Mirand Kenneally:

This is just a sampling. Who would you add to the list? What are your thoughts on character likeablity? Is it about being likeable or about how their story is told?

And if you are looking for more unlikeable characters (like I always am), there is a great series this week on Stacked about unlikeable female characters. 

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