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?

Two Kinds of Obstacle-Stacking

The basic unit of the dramatic scene is this: give a character a goal to pursue, have them pursue it, then move that goal further away. Rinse, raise the stakes, repeat. The harder your characters fight to reach their goal (and the further they’re driven away from it), the more your readers will love it.

This is sometimes called obstacle-stacking, and my favorite example of the technique actually comes from a movie: the famous V-Wing fight from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was hoping to track down a video of the sequence to post here, but unfortunately, no dice. Basically, it goes like this:

  • Indy and Marion emerge from the Well of Souls and attempt to escape the Nazis on a stolen plane.
  • Indy sneaks up to try to knock out the pilot. Before he can get there, he’s spotted by another guy.
  • Indy gets back down off the plane, beats the other guy unconscious, but now the pilot sees what’s going on.
  • The burly mechanic shows up and starts beating Indy to a pulp.
  • Marion takes the blocks out from under the plane’s landing gear.
  • The pilot draws a pistol and nearly shoots Indy, but Marion knocks him out with the blocks.
  • The unconscious guard falls on the plane controls, the plane is now spinning slowly in place with the propellers running.
  • Now Indy and the burly mechanic have to avoid the deadly propellers while they’re fighting.
  • Marion tries to stop the plane, but the hatch closes on her and she’s locked in.
  • The rotating plane knocks open the gas tank of a truck. Gas spills across the runway.
  • A whole mess of guards show up in trucks, armed with machine guns.
  • Marion machine-guns the guards, but one of the trucks explodes, and now gas is now flowing toward the flames.
  • The plane is about to blow up, Marion’s trapped inside, and Indy is being beaten senseless as deadly propellers whirl over his head.

All they wanted to do was get on the plane! To me, this is a pitch-perfect example of how to create drama: a simple goal, and things relentlessly going wrong. This is the good kind of obstacle-stacking: the kind that gets your readers turning pages, forsaking sleep, missing appointments, and alienating loved ones.

But there’s a different kind of obstacle-stacking, which is neither dramatic nor gripping. I’m talking about the obstacles people set in front of them when they plan to start writing. Here’s an example, which is completely fictional and totally not from my own life, especially not from earlier this week.

  • A hypothetical author (TOTALLY NOT ME) gets up, plans to do some writing.
  • But first, better check email. And blogs. And Twitter.
  • One can’t write on an empty stomach, so breakfast time. Better make it as complicated as possible.
  • Oops, just got another email because I didn’t turn off my email client. I mean he didn’t. Oh, screw it.
  • I need coffee. I have to wash the coffee pot and filter because I didn’t do it last night.
  • Is it dark in here? I better adjust the shades. Now it’s too bright. Now it’s too dim. Now it’s too bright again.
  • Better clean this desk off too. A dirty desk is the sign of a dirty — coffee’s done! Oops, too much cream. Now not enough. Now too much again. Now I spilled hot coffee on my crotch. Time for several minutes of screaming and worrying about my future offspring, followed by laundry triage.
  • Okay, NOW I’m ready — maybe I should read a few more blogs, you know, for inspiration. Inspiration to do what, you ask? Look, nobody likes a wise-ass.
  • The cat needs attention. Well I can’t neglect the cat, that would make me some sort of monster!
  • And I don’t want the other cat to get jealous, so…
  • Now to spend ten minutes finding just the right piece of music.
  • All right. I’m finally all set! Everything’s perfect and —
  • Now my coffee’s cold.
  • You know, it’s almost lunch, I’ll catch up this afternoon.
  • Ad infinitum, up to and including social obligations, TV series, the gym, the laundry, the telephone, the doorbell, and so on.

If this looks like textbook procrastination, that’s because it is. But that’s what procrastination amounts to: stacking obstacles between you and your writing. Sometimes they’re perfectly legitimate circumstances that come up. Sometimes they’re just situations you make up. Life will make it hard enough for you to write without you helping.

I still struggle with the urge to wait for the “perfect” circumstances to write in: the day that I’m well-rested, have big blocks of unbroken time, feel inspired, and meet any number of ephemeral criteria. While these days do happen, they’re like a combination of leap year and Christmas. You can’t depend on them coming along very frequently.

Moving yourself further from the act of writing is drama you don’t need, and no one’s going to find it riveting, least of all you. If you want to create a series of insurmountable obstacles, put them in front of your characters instead. Your readers, and your muse, will thank you.