Why Do We Accept Unlikable Characters On the Screen but Not the Page?

There is something that has been bothering me for years and I’d like to finally get it off my chest. Well, not really finally because I actually spend a lot of time complaining about this to anyone who will listen (read: my cat), but I’m speaking about this here and now because I just realize it’s even worse than I initially thought.

Aside from people who say “I could care less” (nails-on-chalkboard), one of my biggest pet peeves is people who write off entire books because “the character was unlikable”.

animated gif you're tacky and i hate you unlikable characters

First of all, humans aren’t all inherently likable. I’m rarely likable (especially before coffee consumption). The human race is a mix of complementary and conflicting neuroses, habits, interests, attitudes and temperaments. We’re not designed to all be likable… at least not all of the time. Hell, although it seems impossible, I’m sure even Lin-Manuel Miranda is unlikable some days. I mean, I don’t think we’ll ever see those moments, but I’m sure his wife has (as every partner has) some stories to tell.

However, I feel that the most interesting literary characters are the ones that make me want to fling that precious $30+ hardcover with deckled edges across the room, narrowly avoiding my husband’s head. Don’t get me wrong, I love Atticus Finch as much as the next book nerd. But Bob and Mayella Ewell are simply more interesting to me. Because their motivations are more mysterious and complex. They may not be the beloved literary patriarch we all aspire to be/marry/raise. In fact, they might be pretty much reviled. But they are more interesting. Actually, Atticus became more interesting with the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Controversial and occasionally heartbreaking, the Atticus we come to know later in his life is a harder nut to crack. Do I like my Papa Finch all soft and squishy? Of course. But Watchman Atticus is simply more complex. Which forces him to take up more space in my brain. Which, in turn, makes him more intriguing to me.

I just finished Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll for my local indie’s bookgroup and a good number of the members (and many of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews I read) decided the book was not for them because the protagonist TiFani was vapid, snobby and kind of bitchy. It wasn’t the rape that set them off. It wasn’t the killing of a group of teenagers. It wasn’t even TiFani’s useless, privileged fiancé expecting her to fake happiness as it was more convenient for him. No, it was the fact that the main character talked a lot about expensive purses and seemed cold and immature. Regardless of the fact that her prickly personality was actually the direct result of the horrors and traumas she had experienced earlier in life.

With all that said, there is a double-standard that I just recognized and it’s really starting to bother me.

We watch flawed, unlikable characters in movies or television and they get nominated for awards.  But if those same unlikable characters appear in print, we write off the entire book (see what I did there)!

arrested development gif woman with drink pun

Let’s break it down…

Walter White (Breaking Bad)- in a Winnebago and literally the worst.

Olivia Pope (Scandal)- talks about “wearing the white hat” but routinely is literally the worst.

Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother)- seems adorable and romantic but is literally the worst.

Don Draper (Mad Men)- sexy and smart and literally the worst.

Al Bundy (Married with Children)- curmudgeonly racist and/so literally the worst.

Loki (Avengers/Thor)- yes, I know, Tom Hiddleston.  But still literally the worst.

The characters of Friends– sure, they’ll be there for you but literally the worst.

Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction)– can dance the hell out of the twist but is literally the worst.

Miss Hannigan (Annie)- loves herself some bathtub gin but literally the worst.

Peter Griffin (Family Guy)- has an annoying laugh and is literally the worst.

Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino)- bad ass grandfatherly type and also literally the worst.

Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada)- wears sky-high stilettos and has a rockin’ accent but also literally the worst.

And the thing is, we don’t bother to pretend that these people are anything but the literal worst. However, we revel in their worst-ness.  We love them even more for it, not in spite of it. Their good characteristics are always used as reasons to overlook the bad. But when it comes to literature, the bad usually tend to outweigh the good. People will refuse to recommend a book due to an unlikable character. They tend to avoid other books written by that same author. And many times, they wont actually complete the book. They outright reject the opportunity to learn the catalyst to the character’s worst-ness.

It’s amazing how we have this capacity for empathy and even love when it comes to onscreen characters. There is so much room for a variety of feelings on a single person. We embrace the weird, annoying, flat-out evil. We root them on. We wear t-shirts with their likeness. We create Twitter handles celebrating their lovable craziness. However, when it comes to books, a single unsavory character (even if the flaws in their personality are important to the overarching story) has some people incapable of forgiving those flaws. As a book, by design, tends to give us more insight into the motivations and history of a character, I would think readers would be more apt to allow extra wiggle room in their judgment on the value of said character. Instead, I see it resulting in a judgment on the value of the entire book. We allow for a lot of gray in onscreen characters. But when it comes to books, it’s black or white, baby! No in-between!

Should writers begin creating only one-dimensional characters? Do we really want to be reading books where “everything is beautiful and nothing hurts”? Isn’t the purpose of literature to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to face the uncomfortable realities of life?

::end existential rant::

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