Unlikeable Characters

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 StrangerMersault, 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?



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13 responses to “Unlikeable Characters

  1. For me, characters must be interesting.

  2. I loved the catcher in the rye, I thought Holden’s dysfunction was real…but I do prefer characters that I can relate to, ones that I can understand and ones that have depth.

  3. My most unlikable one was Magua from The Last of the Mohicans. Don’t know why but he is.

  4. lindsaydetwiler

    I typically like character I can relate to. However, my favorite “despicable” character is Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment. Talk about a character whom I should despise; he murdered a woman! However, I love seeing how his mind works, and I also love that love somewhat redeems him at the end in a strange way.

  5. Suzi W.

    I waffle on this one. Sometimes I can hang in with an “unlikeable,” sometimes not. I *did* like “Catcher in the Rye” but it was so long ago, I think I need to reread it. And “Lolita” keeps coming up, I think I should maybe give it another try. MAYBE. (Maybe not.)

  6. For the most part, I just want characters to be interesting. Some interesting characters are unlikable and others I love.

  7. For me it depends on how unlikeable they are. I like characters who have depth, no matter if they are likeable or not. Sometimes I love to hate a character and other times, I just can’t seem to be willing to finish the book, because I just hate the protagonist too much (mostly happened when I had to read a book for school). I guess it’s all whether I can relate to the character or not, I have certain deal breakers with characters and when they have these aspects it’s over with me. BUT I totally agree with your list!

  8. Ehrrin

    I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt, despite not liking a single character. I like it so much that I’ve read it twice subsequently, and that’s fairly unusual for me. I find that I generally most enjoy novels where I like and relate to the characters, but sometimes the story supersedes that preference. I’ve also come to really love unreliable narrators. One of my favorites in that category is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

  9. I generally enjoy characters I can relate to, as the despicable ones and the villains cause me so much frustration! That being said, however, I really enjoyed the character of Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. It’s fascinating to read about people with such abhorrent intentions, or people who would react so differently to travesty than I would.

  10. The questions you pose in this post are lingering. When I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History I disliked ALL of the characters. I read it through to the end because of the writing and the hope that I might connect with some element of vulnerability, struggle, or ambition, but it didn’t happen.

  11. Annie

    Ignatius J. Reilly, from A Confederacy of Dunces. He’s a boor. He’s whiny. He’s incompetent. And yet, he’s so funny to watch that I devoured the book.

    I completely agree with the rest of the list, though. Holden Caulfield is a pretentious little jerk and Anna Karenina needed several strong doses of reality.

    Lolita is on my “I will never read this” list because I cannot see the appeal of the book. Every recommendation I’ve seen of the book seems like a tortured justification for the book in spite of Humbert Humbert’s predilections.

  12. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Yesterday we looked at the potential problem of too many main characters in a story…

    Today, I’m re-blogging an article about those characters—often necessary—that you may not like…

  13. Pingback: Authors Hate Him! Local Blogger Discovers Amazing List Of Things To Do Besides Reading. Number 12 Will Blow Your Mind! | Eleventh Stack

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