In Defense of Unlikeable Characters

A funny thing, this Twitter thing. Funny how people take to using 140 characters or less to settle a beef between themselves. This week in Needless and Immature Reactions via Twitter comes surprisingly from Judd Apatow, who took exception to Touré, the well-known critic and essayist, slamming his recent film, This is 40.

Touré tweeted, “Warning: ‘This Is 40′ is a horrible mess with a meandering plot and few laughs and characters who are hard to like. What happened?” Apatow responded with a personal cheap shot, that, frankly, isn’t worth reprinting here. It bothered me that Apatow, who I find to be a very creative filmmaker, would respond so childishly to a valid criticism. I saw This is 40 last weekend. I actually enjoyed it, although I found it about 30 minutes too long. What Touré found to be a weakness, I found it a strength: This is 40 is about the realization that life is full of ugly truths we’re too often ill-prepared to face up to. And we deal with those realizations in shocking ways. In other words, there was much I could related to the characters Paul Rudd (Pete) and Leslie Mann (Debbie) portrayed. As they approached their mid-lives, it dawns on them that their lives are a mess, their marriage isn’t as stable as they’d imagined (it never was, really), yet despite all the meandering, it’s those complications and messes that we learn to embrace from our spouses in order to see our marriages and our families survive and thrive. True, Apatow delivers this message in a crude and often heavy-handed fashion, but it works, and it is funny.

What struck me most about Touré’s tweet was the “characters that are hard to like” comment. I ask, since when is it a requirement that characters are supposed to be likable, or easy to like?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read one piece of criticism, whether it’s a review in the New York Times or a fiction critique workshop that singles out a lead character for being “hard to like.”

I agree with Touré that Pete and Debbie are hard to like, but that doesn’t make their characters any less engaging or compelling. I doubt Touré was trying to paint Pete and Debbie’s unlikability as a sign of their characters being weakly written. Fiction is rife with characters that are, by design, “hard to like,” but no less compelling.

Literature is rife with them: Raskolnikov. Anna Karenina. Ignatius J. Reilly. Holden Caulfield. When I read Pride and Prejudice, I found Elizabeth Benett so fucking irritating, yet she compelled the shit out of me. She was pretty hard to like, but Jane Austen wrote her so well, so full of brio and drama that it was hard to ignore her, despite her faults.

The cinema as well: Rick Blaine. Michael Corleone. Travis Bickle. Hannibal Lecter. Hell, Han Solo can be pretty hard to like at times. Admit it.

Me, personally, I tend to write characters with deep flaws, and often times my characters can be unlikable. The main character in my work-in-progress is, frankly, an asshole. Sure, he’s got that lovable asshole quality that allows him to get away with one fuck-up after another, but he’s an asshole nonetheless. There are things he does that makes him hard to like.

There’s a notion in fiction writing that an unlikable character can be made likable through a single redeeming act. I had this discussion years ago with an editor who was running a fiction writing workshop, years ago. She helped me piece together a short story about a corporate drone who had stripped his own personal identity away for the sake of careerism, to the point that in spite of being caught in a life-changing situation, he refuses to change anything about himself in the end. She argued he must change, or else you lose the reader. Why make the reader invest so much in a character that’s hard to like when there’s no payoff.

I countered with John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Rabbit Angstrom is a middle-aged jerk caught forever in arrested development, and when his life changes, does he change inside? No. He only gets worse. He runs.

I won that debate. The story’s ending remained as I’d wanted it.

I don’t ascribe to the theory that unlikable characters have to find some sort of redemption. Pete and Debbie don’t redeem themselves to each other at the end of This is 40. They realize that despite their flaws, however deep and however much those flaws make them want to contemplate murdering one another, they can’t imagine their world without one another. This isn’t redemption, it’s acceptance.

Likability is overrated, I say. What I want are characters that are real. Atticus Finch may be the epitome of the wholesomeness of remaining true to your values and doing what is right in the face of injustice. He could have been a real Mary Sue, but Harper Lee never made him so; Finch was stubborn, and quick to temper, but he was real. Captain Ahab may be the epitome of pure insanity in the face of blinding terror, but he was never a one-dimensional character, a dull villain. Melville made him an unhinged yet compelling villain for the ages. He made him real.

(And the fact that Gregory Peck played both Atticus Finch and Captain Ahab on the silver screen isn’t lost on me right now)

So you can have your characters that are easy to like. Me, make them hard to like, as long as there’s a method to their unlikability. Besides, they’re easier to write. Trust me on this.

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13 thoughts on “In Defense of Unlikeable Characters

  1. I have little patience for people who can’t handle negative criticism. If your ego is that fragile and you’re that shallow, then leave Hollywood, quit writing and go work at a gas station somewhere. I’m not a fan of Apatow because I’m not a fan of crude humor. To me, it’s not funny, it’s not realy comedy, it’s just crude. I do love Freaks and Geeks, but I almost wonder if that show wasn’t freak itself or if Apatow underestimates his audience, or himself, that much. Ignatius J. Reilly and Rick Blaine are two favorite characters of mine and maybe it’s because I identify with so much that I don’t see what makes them unlikable.

    • Freaks and Geeks was really Paul Feig’s genius, truth be told. Apatow has readily admitted that.

      I too love Ignatius J. Reilly, but it’s hard not to see what makes him unlikable. He’s arrogant, boorish, a legend in his own mind, incapable of holding a job, and possessing some rather questionable personal hygiene habits. How is that not unlikable again, Mr. Fishman???

  2. It’s all about preference. I’m not fond of books or movies with wholly unlikable characters leading the show. It’s not enjoyable to wish from start to finish that they’d just all go hang themselves. What I do appreciate is when characters are given a lot of gray. Most humans are fabulous and shitty. It takes solid writing and insight to allow them to be seen with all their nuances.

    In my current WIP, I started out with one of the main characters as a horrible human, but she developed as I wrote and just ended up being deeply flawed and misguided, like most horrible humans tend to be. Maybe that’s the optimist in me – I believe in the potential of characters not to magically morph, but to maybe tip the balance in favor of good. Sometimes they don’t. Then I just have a bus hit them.

    • I don’t care for the Mary Sue character, the ones that can’t do no wrong. But, like you, I think the best characters are the ones that live in gray areas, and know they live in them as well.

  3. Damn, Gus. This is some serious intelligent conversation going on up in here. I couldn’t get through more than half the works/characters you mentioned, but I enjoyed your thoughts about likeable/unlikeable characters. (And the comments, as well.) I think in the end I lean toward more likeable characters, but you make a strong argument that I’m not sure I can dispute with any real evidence.

    Anyway, great stuff here, as usual. Hmmm… A blog that makes you think and has intelligent conversation in today’s Twitter world? What a concept! : )

      • Too funny, and to answer your question… No way! The last thing this country needs is more idiot-like discussion.

        I just attended terrible, public schools and never learned to appreciate literature, and so I’m always a bit insecure when the topic comes up, truth be told. Keep rocking it on here and there’s no question with how well-read you are that you should be all set for a great career in the writing biz.

        • Funny enough, I hated reading lit assigned for class. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I became a literary jock. Something about school makes people not appreciate reading, which is sad and an indictment of our educational system. Of course, not everyone didn’t dislike reading for learning’s sake like I did, but I remember reading The Stranger in the 11th grade and being floored by it.

          In other words, it’s never too late to bone up on your book smarts.

          • Yeah, I hated reading in school — even started as an English Major until the damn reading lists made me want to blow my brains out.

            And I don’t think there’s hope for me, even post-education.

            I had this huge goal to finish War and Peace. So I buy the damn unabridged version and tackle it with Marine-like intensity.

            Make it 100 pages and give up. I pick myself up, re-pump myself up, and think, “It was all the characters and their very similar names that got me last time. I’ll use notecards next time.”

            So, I wait six months, practically take a blood oath, and throw myself into it full bore. Without question, the writing and imagery was incredible. But without question, it was work from nearly page 1.

            By page 286 (bookmark is still there…), I had nearly thirty notecards pracitcally filled up with character traits, tendencies, etc.

            But my version of the book had 1,454 pages and it was work getting through each and every page. (The war hadn’t even commenced for the characters yet.)

            I finally told my wife to hell with it — she’d been telling me to give it up for weeks, seeing how miserable I was, and how it was taking away from my writing and love of reading.

            In the end, I’ve decided that most of that type of writing is not transferable for the type of audience I’m going for, and it was just written in a different time period when you could sit and focus better. And for the most part, I can’t stand English Majors any way, so what’s the point.

            • I feel your pain. I’ve never tackled War and Peace. I figure I’ll leave it as the last book I’ll ever read when I learn I’ve got six months to live. After all, what the hell else am I going to read after that?

              Moby Dick gave me fits when I read it a couple of summers ago, but once the story finally got rolling, hot damn it was hard to let it go. Makes me wonder how much it would be edited by today’s standards, though.

              • Well, that makes me feel better that you’ve never read it… : )

                And I got about 150 through Moby Dick. The writing was great, but I had no idea where it was going — it definitely wasn’t going there in any hurry — and it kept introducing characters that I’m not sure needed to be introduced.

                Ultimately, I just came to see that there’s no way this stuff would sell well if it started w/o a brand name behind it, and thus I figured I was only learning bad lessons from it. And ultimately, the English Majors will never love me anyway — I went to public schools and a state university, and hell, I carried a rifle for four years. To hell with ’em anyway. They can take their perfect grammar and self-righteous attitudes elsewhere. And then those who actually have the guts to publish something (the super vast majority don’t), can whine about why their literature only sells 3,000 copies and why they’re starving and forced to teach English.

  4. Pingback: In the land of “Women” | yourmamasallwrite

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