Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Discussion Post: On Unlikable Characters

About a week ago I was taking part in a live chat on Book Riot with Rainbow Rowell, where she was talking about Landline. Someone asked about unlikable characters and I was shocked that they would think that about her characters. I LOVE her characters, I had never considered that they could be "unlikable." But that got me thinking. That same day I had posted my review of The Magician's Land where I said that even though the characters are not very likable, I like that about them. More than once I have told someone who my favorite character in a series is and people are shocked by my answer. I then feel the need to defend not only the character but also myself. So allow me to do just that and explain why I like "unlikable" characters.

To me there is a big difference between unlikable characters and unsympathetic characters. A lot of the time I find it hard to like people who do terrible things but if I understand why they are doing these things then I'm going to enjoy them and their story. When I was reading Side Effects May Vary I felt like the main character Alice was treating people with absolutely no respect and it made me not like her very much. But I did understand why she was acting this way, and despite the fact I hated her behavior it made her a sympathetic and compelling character. If I can understand a character's motivation then I will easily empathize with them and like them no matter how outrageous and inappropriate their actions may be.

And honestly I don't even really need to agree with their motivation to sympathize with a character that is difficult to like. I mean one of my favorite books is the tortured Gothic love story, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. This is not your typical Austenian romance about misunderstandings and love developing over time. No, this is a book about two spiteful and vindictive people ruining the lives of everyone around them because they're in love and they can't be together. They even ruin each other's lives despite the fact that they are hopelessly in love. They are not easy to like but they are incredibly compelling because I am able to get inside their heads and know why they are doing these terrible things.

Another big thing for me with unlikable characters is, are they realistic? We all know those people who whine all the time, are conceited, and act like they're better than everyone else. I once heard that as readers we like characters who have traits we like about ourselves and dislike characters who have traits we don't like about ourselves. For me this is not entirely true. If I can relate to a fictional character to someone I know in real life (even better if I can relate them to myself) then for me that is a realistic and enjoyable character to read about, even if they are difficult to like. The best example for this one I can give is Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians trilogy. Quentin is annoyingly whiny and never satisfied despite getting everything he ever wanted. But that's part if his charm. Quentin has spent his whole life wanting to escape into something he thought was better. It's his main character flaw. He's the eternal pessimist and I can completely relate. Sure, it's frustrating at times to be on his side but these attitudes of being perpetually unhappy makes him seem realistic and unique. If I can relate at all to the character then I will like them.

 Finally, I will like an unlikable character if they are complex. Similar to the two previous reasons, but if a character does terrible or annoying things but they aren't just a caricature and have something under the surface then I'm going to enjoy them. My example for this one is my favorite unlikable character who I love and will defend until I am out of breathe and friends, Sansa Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire. So yes, when I first met the Starks I found Sansa vapid and annoying. But then I realized something, she's a teenage girl and I'm hating her for being just that. Then I understood her motivation, she's been brought up on stories of love and gallantry and she still believes that the world is good and romantic. She's an idealist. Then when I saw her in that way I realized she has this incredible inner strength that I didn't notice at first because I was fixated on the superficial layer of her personality. Maybe it was a character arc brought about by the hardships she faced or maybe it was always there under the surface and we never noticed it because she wasn't as obviously badass as those around her. But believe me when I say Sansa is one of the toughest characters in that series. A lesser person would not have been able to handle all the hate she received at the hands of the Lannisters! Despite the fact that she is one of the most disliked people within the fandom, Sansa has quickly become my favorite character in the series and it's because of her complexities.

But before I wrap this all up I feel like I would be doing the topic a disservice if I didn't mention some villains. Villains and anti-heroes are pretty much the perfect unlikable characters. You're not supposed to like the evil characters in a book, especially if there is a likable hero in the story. But for me that is so hard sometimes. For awhile my favorite characters in a book or series were the villains because they are so compelling. You know those people. The ones you love to hate! Who are so bad it's good. For all the reasons listed above I will often love a totally unlikable villain if they are sympathetic, realistic, and complex. Like Queen Levana in The Lunar Chronicles, Circe in The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, and The Darkling in the Grisha Trilogy.

How do you feel about "unlikable" characters? Has there ever been a time you felt like you had to defend your love of a character? Leave me a comment with your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by and HAPPY READING!


  1. I love Sansa too! She's like in my 3 top favorite GOT characters along with Tyrion & Aria.
    Hmm...I usually don't hate villans. I mostly enyoy their attitude. But some of them I just hate(Joffrey).
    I hate it when characters are without one weakness. Everyone has something even if it doesn't show a lot.
    Interesting Post!

    1. YEAH.... I love meeting a fellow member of Team Sansa! We are far and few between. Although most people either agree with me or appease me when I start arguing about how awesome she is.

      I love villains attitudes too but yes, Joffrey is pretty much the worst, there's very little to like in him. However there are some likable villainous characters in ASoIAF. Like Cersei, Tywin, and Littlefinger!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. I love this post! Don't mind me....just forwarding a link to my friends...