Unlikable Characters

jennifer-chatWhy do some people say they hated a book simply because they hated a character? Those are mutually exclusive things to me and I don’t get it.

I used the term “unlikeable” very loosely. So a character doesn’t do every single thing I would do? Does that make them someone to hate? If a woman has sex with someone who isn’t her husband, should we hate the book? Throw the character over a cliff?

monika-chatI think there’s a difference between the character and character development. If I hate the main character, but that character is very well-developed, that can make for an especially compelling read.

shannon-chatThe most important thing for me is being interested in a character, which usually comes with strong development, as Monika said. I’m often interested in really awful people, perhaps out of some morbid curiosity.

In fact, I usually find myself disliking books with characters that make me feel too comfortable. I often find them too sweet and their arcs unsurprising. But maybe this comes back around to why we read—some of us look for the comfort of familiar faces, places and situations while others open a book to experience something outside the norm.

monika-chatAnd many of us mix it up between comfort reads and new/different experiences. I’m trying to imagine a character being so despicable or so boring that it affected my enjoyment of the book itself. But all of the examples I can think of were ultimately due to other issues: character development, overall premise, plot, etc.

april-chatI agree, ladies. I love a compelling character and more often I am compelled by the villainous, the disastrous, and the unfortunate rather than the sweet and normal. But I tend to read more confronting rather than comforting reads—possibly because I’m comforted by being confronted. But I think that’s another discussion.

shannon-chatLeave it to Roxane Gay to throw all of my feelings into two lines.


“I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things — human.” – Roxane Gay


This goes back to what Jennifer started with, but when we talk about characters being “unlikable”, we rarely mean we dislike them. Aren’t we often saying they say or do things outside social norms…things that would make us unlikable? When Nora went on a rampage (in her head, mind you) in The Woman Upstairs, did you not want to run around the house screaming, “YESSSSS!”? According to the media, though, thoughts like that mean she’s just “unlikable”… someone no one would want as a friend.

catherine-chatI LOVED Nora. Her first paragraphs were some of the most eloquent and concise words on being a middle-aged woman that I have ever read. Did I like her? Not really, but what a character.

Another great unlikable male was the father in David Gilbert’s & Sons. He was dreadful but he was the linchpin of that novel. I loved it.

shannon-chatI think you’re getting at a good distinction here…it’s possible to dislike or disapprove of a character’s thoughts or actions but find them fascinating and essential to the story at the same time.

catherine-chatDo we have to get into Gone Girl? It’s been done so much but it was the first book where I actively disliked both of the protagonists, really did hope they’d kill each other and when the novel ended it made me queasy. But I could not put it down because it was so well-written.

shannon-chatBut weren’t they interesting? I loved hating them. I loved trying to guess what horrible thing they would do next and watching them spiral out of control.

april-chatI loved the characters in Gone Girl, both because they were interesting and I found them deliciously twisted. Maybe that’s my new bio: “Deliciously twisted.” I’m trying to think of characters that I didn’t like. Maybe Dr. Marc Schlosser in Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool, he was twisty but decidedly not delicious.

catherine-chatThis kind of goes beyond the interesting aspect and comes down to something we all talk about often- the writing. Good writing makes for interesting characters. If the author has taken the time to make an unlikable protagonist nuanced then I’m much more likely to keep reading. I’ve read some books with ‘villains’ who were so one note they turned me off.

shannon-chatSo, that brings us back around to Monika’s need for character development. Sounds like she’s the winner!

monika-chatExtending this outside of the topic of characters a bit: I’ve also seen people say they didn’t like a book because it was “too depressing” (for example). That kind of thing doesn’t really affect my rating of the book. Does a book have to make the reader feel good in order for it to be “a good book”?

shannon-chatI think that kind of comes back to why we read. Like you said before, I think all of us mix in comfort reads at times, but for some I suppose reading is a complete escape. Is that what pushes people away from “unlikable” characters and “depressing” books?

april-chat…and again, I think Shannon’s correct. If someone reads for comfort then I can understand why they might dislike a particularly confronting book—however I have a hard time understanding people who can find no redeeming value in a book simply because it was depressing. Both depressing and unlikable, complex characters are often powerful (when well written, of course) which is just something that even the best written cozy mystery isn’t going to be able to deliver.

monika-chatI just feel like if you’re looking for a comfort read rather than a confronting read… maybe read the synopsis first?

shannon-chatYou would think!

jennifer-chatWhy doesn’t it go the same way with television characters. People LOVE to hate characters and love those shows because of the characters. A famous one that comes to mind is JR from Dallas (hello, old lady reference!). People hated that dude but loved watching him.

Why are soap operas so popular? Because of the villains! People don’t tune in to watch some bitch prance around in a field of daisies.

catherine-chatI’ll jump right into old lady land with you, Jennifer! Alexis Colby on Dynasty! Joan Collins was the best. Is it scary that I remembered her name without even having to look it up?

april-chatExcellent point about television versus reading. I think that the reason people may be able to enjoy the villains in television or movies is because it’s such a much more passive art form to experience. To read, you must invest something of yourself into that book— for TV and movies, you just sit back and let the pictures and sounds assault you.

What do you think, readers? Does hating a character make you hate a book? What makes a character “unlikable”, and what do we mean by that anyway? Does this all come back to the writing, the reader, or both?