Monday, 7 February 2011

Unlikeable Characters

I'm writing about this because, to me, characters are the heart and soul of stories. I can't write a novel if I don't love the characters I'm working with, if they don't feel real. Most of the time, the things I write are driven by my characters' instincts and actions; the plot I'm working around can take a detour.

Similarly, when I'm reading, the things I remember most about novels I love are the characters. The Time Traveler's Wife, one of my favourite books in the whole world, is firmly imprinted in my head. Not because of its plotting, or ingenious timeline, or clever devices, but simply because of Henry and Clare, the protagonists, and their amazing, difficult love story.

So what happens to a book if a key character, a central figure, is simply unlikeable? 

(It's worth noting here that I don't mean villains, antagonists. Characters who are supposed to be despicable don't necessarily count, though even here there's a difference between loving a character while hating them as a person (all good villains are loved as characters, even if they're awful people), and simply detesting the character because he or she has been lazily executed or poorly drawn. Caricatured, one-dimensional villains are often unlikeable because they're simply not interesting. 

Or because they're so cheesy you just cringe. I'm looking at you, every Power Ranger villain ever written.)

So back to the question of unlikeability.

This is a sticky one. How does a writer work out whether or not they're writing bad characters? How does a reader sit back and say 'yep, this book is full of unlikeable characters' when other people might tell you how amazing they are? Reading, writing and characters are so subjective, it's almost impossible to put your finger on what, inherently, makes characters unlikeable - and how, as a writer, to avoid it.

These things turn me off instantly:

1. Selfish characters. A certain amount of selfishness doesn't bother me. Especially not if the character realizes they've been selfish and starts to grow and evolve into something better. But when a character is consistently self-absorbed and selfish and refuses to see this or change, that drives me crazy. For me, it's not about a character I'm supposed to dislike. It just feels like the author's done a shoddy job making me like this person.

Example: I recently read a book in which the heroine, a dying teenager, is completely irresponsible, selfish and downright inconsiderate of everyone else's feelings: it's as if she feels entitled to everything because she's been unlucky enough to have cancer. The last 30 pages of the novel were amazing; the rest just made me grit my teeth and think 'stop being such a selfish ****, I honestly don't care that you're dying!'

Which, you know. Isn't what you should be feeling about your heroine/narrator.

2. Stupid characters. I've mentioned this before, but I will again. It's not about characters who are handicapped, or silly, or not very intelligent; it's characters who are mind-numbingly stupid. I.e. Page Ten: Character Two tells Stupid Main Character not to do something and tells him why doing that something would be very, very bad (and it's an excellent reason, by the way). Page Twelve: Stupid Main Character does the thing he was told not to.


(Note: in most circumstances, this wouldn't actually be an unlikeable character. Just an annoying and painfully frustrating one. But it might be enough to turn you off reading the rest of the book, as it has done for me in the past, so I thought it worth mentioning.)

3. Perfect characters. You know the ones I mean. The ones whose virtues are constantly being pointed to: 'Richard is so kind', 'Richard only wants what's best for the people', 'Richard is handsome', 'Richard makes me laugh', 'Richard never puts a foot wrong'. And even when Richard makes a colossal mistake because he's actually a bit of a dolt, it turns out well, so Richard's still a brilliant hero. 

These are characters you just want to smack in the face. It's impossible to admire them, because virtues mean nothing if there aren't any flaws to contrast them with. It's impossible to sympathize with them, because we, the readers, aren't perfect. It's downright hard to like them.

These are just three qualities I've found in characters I don't like, but it's not always easy to put it into words. There are characters I simply can't stand, but couldn't really tell you why. They're simply unlikeable.

How do you measure unlikeability in a character? Is it an instinct that tips you off? Or is there a concrete quality that consistently irks you? 

And do these characters put you off reading a book entirely?


  1. The one book I absolutely loathed was Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert came across as the most self-pitying, self-absorbed woman and I found myself wishing for her relationship to fail as she was so wet. xxx

  2. I am not sure about this. I seem to be the only person who sees the protagonist in my first two novels for who he truly is – selfish, vain, misanthropic and sexist – but because I pretty much make his life miserable (and I really don’t know if this is a British thing) all my readers end up feeling sorry for him – we do love our underdogs. He’s more pathetic than nasty and I think that counts for a lot but I think if any of us saw the dog that tried to bite us last week being beaten we’d defend the dog and not the attacker.

  3. I find it hard to read books where the main character (especially female) plays the victim. Not just if something horrible has happened, but in general. Those, "it's not my fault" damsel in distress types that are always getting into predicaments.

  4. Don't like the stupid ones either! Those ruin more movies for me than books though. My main character started off almost too unlikeable because he was selfish, but I toned it down - and he does grow and change throughout the story.

  5. I agree with your list--I don't like those kinds of characters at all!

  6. I think you've named all the points that usually irk me, although my biggest frustration is with the characters in supernatural novels who remain stubbornly blind to the supernatural.

    I remember some book where a woman married a "perfect" man despite the suspicions of her children. It quickly became obvious he and his friends were vampires of the evil, bloodsucking variety but this woman, the main character mind you, sat around until the last thirty pages doing NOTHING while her kids found more and more evidence that didn't convince her.

    I think the most important thing for a character is to be believable. But likability is a close second.

  7. LOL I hate those kind of characters, too. One of my MCs was starting to turn into one of the 'too perfect' characters so I've had to seriously rewrite. He was getting on my nerves, SO BAD.

  8. Those hit the mark quite well! I can't stand characters who do not evolve with the story. If they have a negative trait and it pushes them into a direction of growth, then I finish a book satisfied. Great list!

  9. I'd have to say I actually like perfect characters sometimes - depending on how they're executed. For example: Aragorn is pretty darn perfect. Does he ever mess up? He's courageous, strong, wise, and makes fairly flawless decisions.
    Otherwise, though, I totally agree. :)

  10. TSTL (too stupid to live) characters really, really annoy me. I want to climb inside the book and whack them round the head until they wake the hell up. Other than that I find it quite hard to define general traits of unlikeable characters. There are plenty that I love to hate but they don't count as they're often vital to the story. I just really dislike badly written, uninteresting characters. It's always a bad sign when you're more interested in the supporting characters and their plots than you are in the main characters!

  11. Oh, ugh. This hit a tender spot! I've been told by one reader that she wanted to slap my main character! :) I don't mind strong characters who may act a certain way - as long as I can see WHY they're acting like that, and have a it of empathy for it. If there's a hope of redemption, I'm fine with it. I must have a higher tolerance than others, though!

  12. Hi!! *waving* I've missed ya! Sorry I haven't dropped by earlier. Awesome post! One thing's for sure, is that I MUST connect with the protagonist or I'll put the book down.

    I SO agree with you on all of your listed points. Thanks for getting it out there!

    ♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

  13. The "perfect character" I think applies a little to the harry potter movies. Harry is so virtuous and self sacrificing. He does;nt even once gloat about his achievements. He does;nt have a single flaw. Well actually he does but they are very admirable and forgivable flaws. "He is obsessed with the death of his parents" "He tries to do everything alone" etc.