In a recent Slate article, novelist Lionel Shriver wrote a “defense of unlikable characters,” wherein she claims that no one wants to read about characters who are likeable because, in their likability, they are annoying. She’s mostly using this argument as an explanation for why she wrote such an unlikable mother in the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (thus setting herself up with other writers-of-bad-guys such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Flaubert)(no seriously, she sticks her name nicely on the end of the list)(no really, I’m not kidding).
Shriver says an audience won’t read a novel about a character who is immoral, unworthy of affection, uninteresting and unsympathetic- but we should! Because everyone in real life is thusly, so there! But here’s the thing: they’re not. Not everyone in my sphere is the dastardly combination of bad, annoying, boring and all without reason or explanatory circumstances. I generally don’t surround myself with people I want to punch-kick in the brain piece, so that begs the question- why should I feel like I have to read about them?
I’m not totally unwilling to read about an unlikable protagonist. Humbert Humbert is a pedophile forcryingoutloud, and I think he’s fascinating- but that’s just it, isn’t it? HE’S FASCINATING. Even Holden Caulfield, my paragon of Unlikeable Doof is sympathetic (he’s a teenager, what more explanation is necessary for his whimpering narcissism). Shriver says “we can sympathize with people of whom we sometimes approve, and whom we may not entirely like” and this is true- but that line of sympathy is drawn at wildly different spots for different readers.
My sympathy line tends to be drawn firmly before “whiny, selfish and suburban.” I have trouble really engaging with a book where the main character does mean things to other characters out of boredom or white-collar ennui. I personally find them. Well. Boring (This means I end up tossing a lot of White Male F*ck Up Novels aside- sorry John Warner!). I don’t think this is me projecting morality onto novels. I will read about any variety of horrific deed or icky bad person as long as they give me a reason. It just takes too much energy for me to drum up interest in a character who reminds me of that guy at the office that I take serious steps to avoid.
So I say, toss aside an unlikable character if you see fit. The idea that all characters are welcome in my brain space because some people out there are also like them? Pshaw! I wouldn’t hang out with Rabbit Angstrom’s real-life counterpoint unless forced to at gun point, so you probably won’t catch me with his novel version any time soon.
What about you? Are there any characteristics in a novel’s protagonist that will make you abandon the book (or at least really dislike it when it’s over)? Have you ever given up on a book or series because of the characters? Should we purposefully read novels with unlikeable characters because some people are like them, too? Rhode Island is neither a Rhode nor an island. Discuss.