I recently read a book that I could barely finish because I hated the characters so much. The only character who seemed even slightly interesting in her dysfunction was a minor character who never felt fully developed. The main characters were all boring or snobbish or outright mean. Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was a book about a dysfunctional family, I couldn’t really find anything of meaning that made me want to keep reading about them.
And maybe the worst thing of all: The characters were boring in their unlikeableness.
Somehow this book just didn’t get the hang of the compelling unlikeable character, but it did make me realize that lots of my favorite novels are about unlikeable characters. In fact, lots of us love novels with characters who aren’t easy to love. So, a short list dedicated to unlikeable protagonists:
The Catcher in the Rye: It’s recently come to my attention that not everyone loves this book as much as I do! It’s hard to believe, I know. Probably a lot of this stems from the fact that Holden Caulfield is kind of a jerk. He is, however, a very sentimental and vulnerable jerk, which is why people like me and the scores of others who love this book find him palatable. And who doesn’t hate phoniness?
Anna Karenina: Another of my favorite books, with a main character who is really pretty awful. To be honest, the things that make me love this have very little to do with the title character, and EVERYTHING to do with Kitty and Levin. Anna really doesn’t have many redeemable qualities aside from being beautiful, but the romance between Kitty and Levin is a wonderful side plot. Also, even though Anna can be pretty awful at times in this book, she’s literally a train wreck, and what can I say—I enjoy melodrama!
Madame Bovary: Like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary is beautiful and shallow. I’ve read this book a number of times and always find myself rooting for her despite the fact that she continually makes terrible choices. She’s a dreamer, and loves books (like me!); she’s also just so self-sabotaging that it’s hard to sit and watch her downward spiral. The fact that this is one of the most beautifully written novels of all time doesn’t hurt it either.
The Stranger: Mersault, the main character, doesn’t have much going for him. He doesn’t have much empathy for anyone and winds up killing a man. Like all of these books though, the point of the story isn’t to have a likeable character; it’s to comment on society. This is one of those books that stayed with me, in part because it’s a classic of Existenialism, but maybe a little bit because I’ll always remember struggling through it for the first time as a young French student and suddenly realizing that it was the inspiration for one of my favorite songs.
Lolita: Yep, you don’t get much more unlikeable than Humbert Humbert, the most famous pedophile of all time. It doesn’t stop this book from being one of the most widely-regarded, if controversial, works of 20th century literature.
Do you prefer characters you can relate to, or like me do you like them a little despicable? Who is your favorite unlikeable character?