I Just Didn’t Care: Unlikeable Characters in Fiction

I adore broken characters. The more broken, the better. As long as I find their struggle compelling, I’ll get on board with the most twisted, morally repugnant characters imaginable.

I’ve had many discussions about “unlikeable” characters in movies and books, and whether or not “likeability” is a prerequisite for engaging with a story. Personally, I don’t believe it is. Some of my favorite movies feature unlikeable people doing horrible things.

Further, I think “likeable” is a bit of a slippery phrase that can mean any number of things. For example, people adore Darth Vader — is this because they agree with his moral choices or admire his ideals? For most people, I’d venture to say probably not. So what’s likeable about him, aside from the bad-ass suit, red lightsaber, cool voice modulation, and the ability to choke people with his mind? Well, I guess I’ve answered my own question here.

Let’s move on to a more complex example. One of my favorite movies for character-study purposes is the 2004 Mike Nichols drama Closer, about four horrible people who spend the entire movie hurting each other’s feelings as savagely as they can. The characters run the gamut from the pathetic to the truly loathsome — I’d go so far as to say there’s no one to root for in the story. The main characters are all lying, unpleasant, psychologically broken people. And yet I find their interactions fascinating.

Why? Because Closer is a story about characters being in love, in which each character sees love differently. One sees love like a switch that can be turned on and off at will, a delicate state that shatters at the first sign of trouble. Another conflates love and novelty — for him, losing that first exhilarating rush of a burgeoning relationship and “falling out of love” are the same thing. A third character sees love as possession and an intricate game to be won. The conflict stems from the different ideals each character holds dear and how they run afoul from one another. Like so many romantic comedies, the story derives from frequent and avoidable misunderstandings, except it’s not funny so much as horrifying.

The irreconcilable conflict between each character’s ideals drives them to hurt each other, over and over, and never figure out why — added to which, each of them lies and cheats, often without any apparent remorse. None of the characters are likeable, and yet the story compels, because each of them wants so badly to achieve something they can barely even define, much less share with another person.

Another favorite example of mine is Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane. The story follows Kane from the brash idealism of his youth to his lonely, hollow end. Even though I love Kane as a character, I don’t think he’s conventionally likeable. Young Kane is charismatic and confident, but frequently smug; as Kane ages, he sells out his own ideals so completely that he becomes unrecognizable. He treats people like objects to be bought and sold, and uses his power to manipulate everyone to his own ends. Even at the end, when Kane loses everything, his motives are centered on himself:

Kane: Don’t go, Susan. You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.
Susan: I see. So it’s YOU who this is being done to. It’s not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.

Kane’s story works as tragedy because his younger self was so full of promise and ideals, with so far to fall — and fall he does. Kane even hints at seeing his downward path early on:

Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Thatcher: Don’t you think you are?
Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.

Conventional writing wisdom tells us to make sympathetic protagonists to whom the reader can relate — and yet great stories seem to flaunt this principle all the time. I don’t think great protagonists need to be likeable; they need to be compelling. A character can have morally hideous goals and still move the reader, as long as those goals can be understood and shared by the reader, even if the reader disagrees with them.

To cite one last favorite of mine: Psycho. Midway through the film, the ostensible protagonist, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), after stealing some money from her employer and then deciding to return it, is murdered by Norman Bates. To me, this is part of what makes Psycho so brilliant. Not only does Hitchcock make the thieving, dishonest protagonist compelling, but he then murders the protagonist in the middle of the story, at the point where she is the most sympathetic.

But then Hitchcock turns it around again. Bates needs to dispose of Marion’s body. He stuffs her in the trunk of her car and tries to sink the car into the lake. The car begins to sink… and then stops.

And the audience holds its breath. It’s an oh-shit moment where the audience realizes Bates’ plight: if he can’t sink the car, he’ll be caught. Does the audience want Bates to get away with it? Well, not really — but for that one moment, the audience understands Bates’ plight and sympathizes with it. The scene compels, despite the fact that it’s the antagonist being set back.

If you can master this sort of thing in your own writing, you’ll have one of the best weapons in the writer’s arsenal for hooking readers. A character who tries entirely too hard to be likeable is often dismissed as a Mary Sue. But a character whose conflicts resonate and compel even when their ends are totally at odds with the reader’s ideals — that’s great storytelling at work.

So what about you? Do you need to like a character, especially a protagonist, to enjoy their story?

29 Replies to “I Just Didn’t Care: Unlikeable Characters in Fiction”

  1. Likability doesn’t always make for an interesting read, but broken, psychologically complex characters are often fascinating. That’s why I can’t get enough, I suppose.

  2. It’s odd, I personally prefer to read and connect more deeply with tales featuring more sympathetic likable characters. Yes, there have been notable exceptions, but mostly if I don’t like the people I’m reading about I drop the book in favor of something else. Life is short after all and my reading list is long, why waste time on something with characters I’m not digging? However, I’ve noticed that my memorable stories of my own creation tend to feature characters on the spectrum ranging from annoying individuals I would not befriend in real life to an amalgamation of everything I despise. I’ve written more sympathetic characters, sure, but I think I make an effort to make my characters annoying to some extent. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure if I’m even successful (i.e. if they annoy anyone other than me). But it is rather fun to do.

    1. I think what’s tricky about the concept of “liking” characters is, it depends on what exactly about them you admire. It’s no secret that people “love to hate” certain characters. They can get away with murder (literally) if they’re charming, funny, tenacious, or have some other quality we’re capable of admiring. Even a character with no redeeming qualities at all can be appealing, if they’re presented in the right way. But it’s a thin line. I think I might be the opposite of you; I like reading about unlikeable characters, but tend not to write them by default.

  3. Have you noticed the trend (seen in YA mainly, but I bet you could find other convincing examples–especially in television) where “likeable” characters mean “bland characters without strong desires or motivations”?

    I agree with you that compelling is far more important than likeable. And as you note, what makes a compelling character, or situation, can be plot-dependent, or framing-dependent rather than an inherent compelling characteristic of the character themselves.

    Okay, so I’ve thought about it enough and cast my mind back to The Great Gatsby. Do you remember how boring Nick Carraway is? But how desire-riven the story is? Carraway is like water–only there to reflect and shimmer after Gatsby’s great passion. But it’s not important for us to find Nick compelling–only to find Gatsby compelling. To be, as the narrator is, compelled by a figure external to us.

    So, yeah. I think that means I need to have at least one compelling touchstone in a story. It doesn’t have to be our narrator, or the main protagonist–but it sure as hell better be someone/something in the story.

    1. I sometimes wonder if the bland, milquetoast protagonist isn’t a by-product of authors taking the “reader insertion” angle too far — if the reader wants to place themselves in the story, then it’s best to make them as generic and inoffensive as possible? This is just a wild theory, though. I also suspect YA is particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of introspective, self-centered characters who feel beleaguered by the world around them, because that’s what some authors feel YA readers will relate to.

      Of course, it’s easy to go the other way and make a one-dimensional, irredeemable asshole and assume the audience will love them because they’re such a maverick.

  4. I’m always rooting for the bad guy! I don’t know why, they’re just more interesting to me. A character being ‘nice’ isn’t quite the same as a likeable character to me – I need them to be engaging and unpredictable.

    Whether I have to like the protagonist to like the story is a different question – in some works (The Great Gatsby comes to mind) the beauty of the style alone is enough to keep me engaged, even when I don’t care about the characters *ducks flying tomatoes from Fitzgerald fans* but of course, most of the time an unlikeable protagonist sours the story for me. I can’t even think of an example because unlikeable character also happen to be forgettable ones 😉

    1. That’s two Great Gatsby references in the comments! Sounds like I really ought to read that book one of these days… thanks for the comment, Dasia 🙂

  5. This is a really interesting topic because there are just so many variables. It’s obviously easier to connect with a protagonist that’s likable (at first, anyway), but unlikable characters can be just as (if not more so) interesting. I think it may take a little longer to connect to unlikable protagonists, but if done correctly it can create a really interesting and dynamic story.

  6. I don’t need to personally “like” a character in order to enjoy them. Example: Tyrion Lannister in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series. He is sly, he is cunning, and he does Bad Things. He also does things that one might sympathize with.

    Also, people apparently love the Dexter character from the book series and television series of that name, but I couldn’t dig him. I only read the first book, and watched the first episode of the first series, and thought to myself: “Serial killers: you’re doing it wrong.”

    Conversely, I do appreciate Hannibal Lecter.

    1. Tyrion’s a great example, actually, and one I wish I’d thought to put in the post. What I like about him is that his motivations make sense. He’s not just mustache-twirlingly evil for no good reason. Thanks for the comment, Jennifer!

  7. No, I definitely don’t need to like a character. And yet, I find it very hard to get my manuscripts past people when they don’t instantly like the character. It frustrates me at times. I end up watering down my characters to make them more likable. But otherwise, it won’t sell. Admittedly, this could be me. I write unlikeable characters without a compelling goal, I guess. Don’t know. Still trying to figure this one out. (Great post!)

    1. The market realities are a big drawback to this approach, I agree. I wish more publishers were on board with controversial, challenging characters. The goal thing might actually be the key — characters who want something TERRIBLE with a burning passion can really draw in a reader. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Great post Daniel! I completely agree, they don’t have to be likeable in the conventional sense. I define likeable as emotion provoking, whether it be good or bad. I want a character to stay with me while I’m not reading. I want to wonder, “what would they be doing right now?” I must admit that most books don’t provoke this feeling. It’s a tricky to accomplish. But when it is, it’s the best feeling ever!

    1. Thanks, Angie! In some ways, I’d rather have someone totally hate something I wrote than feel totally indifferent to it. I’ve gotten pissed at authors before, but it means I was engaged with the material.

  9. I know a lot of people who hate Closer, but I’m with you on this one. I’ve always found it painful and fascinating — probably because I’ve seen this kind of destructive behavior played out. I don’t have to like a character, but I do have to find something about them sympathetic in order to be able to invest myself in their story, whether it’s something I have in common with them, an affinity for something that smooths an edge or two, or that they’re just plain pathetic.

      1. And many years later I comment… I like Closer too — seems what I am writing now is taking a leaf from the same book

  10. American Psycho!!

    I see morally despicable characters like Darth Vader and Patrick Bateman as being likable simply because they have power over everyday things that we don’t – taking care of people you don’t like. Maybe it’s just part of the fantasy of being able to destroy in such a manner, but Bateman’s case is that train-wreck scenario that we are obsessed with watching. So, in this sense they’re not unlikable but very likable – and probably for the ‘wrong’ moral reasons, but definitely for the right character driven reasons.

    The Shipping News is a novel where I did not like the character to the point where I couldn’t even get past the 5th or 6th page. My boss who recommended it said that the point of him being “such a loser” was for the reader to see him transform. That’s all good and true. But he didn’t hook me into continuing to read, that’s for sure!

  11. This was a very interesting read, thank you! To be honest, I do actually need a character to be at least somewhat redeemable to sympathize with him/her as a protagonist. That being said, I can find an unsympathetic protagonist compelling, for the duration of the story, should the conflict and tension of the story work towards that goal. I’m not sympathizing with Norman Bates when I watch him, but I do find him interesting enough to keep me invested.

    I suppose the mainstream “likability” of morally ambiguous characters is comprised of two elements:

    1) The character is essentially “lowest common denominator”, as everyone from the most honest to the most vindictive can find the motivations of a killer interesting. We might get reprimanded for doing something wrong in our daily lives, and while a morally upstanding character only enhances our sense of guilt, a morally ambiguous or repugnant character gives us a favourable comparison for ourselves. We look at Homer Simpson and laugh because, even at our worst, we are not that stupid, childish or selfish. Similarly, if we look at a criminal’s actions in fiction, we can explore his/her world with the comfort of knowing that we are ‘above it all’, which brings me to the second element.

    2) The character provides escape and catharsis, as he/she reflects our baser nature in some meaningful way. The rational part of our minds may not agree with a vigilante who murders a guilty party in cold blood, but our irrational ‘worse angel’ gets a visceral thrill out of seeing the revenge take place in gory detail. On some level we like a world that is simple and easy to understand, where justice is swift, people are selfish, and standards of conduct are strictly ideals.

    The catharsis provided can also be more complex; if a character has ‘fallen’ in some way, such as having ruined someone else’s life, our ‘better angel’ will want to see this character be redeemed, as after the worse angel has its fill we like to believe that the world around us makes sense, and that someone who is trying to become better will succeed. Conversely, we also like to see crimes and character flaws punished in some form; one imagines that the story of Charles Foster Kane would not have been so well received if all his machinations and manipulations had led to his own self-satisfied happy ending. Our self-righteous nature also finds catharsis in morally ambiguous characters, provided they ‘get what they deserve’. One of the main criticisms of Theodore Dreiser’s bleakly realistic Sister Carrie is that the title character is rewarded, rather than punished, for her immoral actions. We can sympathize with a crook who is down in the gutter, but we find it much harder to sympathize with one whose misdeeds have placed him at the top.

    In this way, I think successful use of a morally ambiguous protagonist depends upon satisfying the audience’s desires on both an intellectual and visceral level; we need to explore these dark, gritty aspects of the world we live in and our own pscyhe, but we need them to be framed in fiction that can be scrutinized at a safe distance. Most of us probably wouldn’t choose to be friends with a mob boss, but we like reading about one in our living room. Just as tension and conflict are the basis of compelling storytelling, so too is the taboo a powerful hook by which to excite and intrigue us.

  12. I don’t think criticisms of characters’ unlikeability can be dismissed out of hand. If people are criticizing a work because its characters are unlikeable, it’s often not because the audience lacks the open-mindedness to accept unlikeable characters, but rather because the work in question doesn’t understand its own characters well enough to realize that it has put off its audience. Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones, Matthew Broderick’s character (I don’t remember the character’s name and I don’t want to) and Zach Braff’s character in the Last Kiss (I may be in the minority on this one) don’t work for me and help to ruin the works they’re in because they’re unlikeable and they’re in stories that assume they are likeable and that I will relate to them and want them to succeed, when in reality, I want to see them get eaten by a giant gonorrhea virus because they’re whiny and annoying. On the other hand, it wouldn’t occur to me to criticize Walter White or Tracy Flick for being unlikeable – they’re supposed to be unlikeable, they’re in stories that are aware of that fact and use their character flaws effectively. Some people may just prefer likeable protagonists as a (perfectly legitimate) matter of personal taste, but when criticisms of a work for its key characters being unlikeable crop up, its creators should resist the temptation to assume that it’s all just about the audience being too conventional.

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