Long Live the Unlikeable

I have to tell you about the most delightful conversation from last weekend. I was moderating a discussion among five other writers at the Mississippi Book Festival (which was amazing, btw, major props to all the volunteers and also to the food truck that had fried okra, which was WORTH EVERY SINGLE GRAM OF SODIUM I DO NOT EVEN CARE). They were:

Before our session got started, we were chatting backstage about how often people turn down a book because they don’t find the main character “likeable.” So once we got out there, I asked these writers on the record: What would you say in defense of those “unlikeable” characters? (And do they even need defending?)

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I didn’t record the conversation, although you may have caught it on C-SPAN, and I think the festival will post video at some point later. So pardon my summarizing. In lieu of exact quotes, please enjoy this picture of fried shrimp and fried okra together in a little paper basket of joy.

Anton spoke up first. Perfect people are boring, she said, in real life and in art. (CAN I GET AN AMEN?) Ashley hooked her thumb over at Anton and chimed in with a resounding “what she said,” as did Karen. Everyone nodded.

Then Natashia told us that in her work as a criminal defense attorney, she’s often in the position of trying to understand people who have made poor choices or who made the best choices they could and ended up in a bad place, and that she thinks a lot about how a little mercy can transform a life, how there’s more to a person than whatever makes them not-so-likeable. (Then everyone paused and let the deep thoughts sink in while also contemplating the fact that Natashia is a practicing lawyer and a writer and we all want to know what kind of mascara she uses, because her lashes are like butterflies.)

Cynthia wrapped it up by bringing it all down to one thing: empathy. If a character is so unlikeable that the reader can’t even begin to relate to them, it might mean the author should have used a little more empathy in envisioning that character and communicating their motivations. You can dislike what people do, she pointed out, without dismissing who they are. She tries to do that for all her characters. Then I stood up and snapped.

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My conversation partners, from left: Karen White, Natashia Déon, Ashley Warlick, and Anton DiSclafani (Not pictured: Cynthia Sweeney, who was being mobbed by fans wanting signatures at the moment this photo was taken.)

OK, I did not stand up and snap, because this was a professional occasion, but in my mind, I snapped. Twice. The second snap was because the “unlikeable” thing is most often lobbed at female characters — presumably because people reeeeeally don’t like it when women do bad things? — so I extra-snap the idea of having empathy for all humans, even fictional ones, especially female ones.

Look, I get the criticism. If you’re going to spend a few hours with someone — as you do with the characters in a book or a movie or whatever — you want to enjoy the time you give them. But that’s where fiction has an advantage over real life: you can read an exquisitely written bad person and enjoy the experience of reading about her without actually having to be friends with that person in life. And in doing so, you mentally practice the empathy Cynthia was talking about. You extend a little of that mercy Natashia mentioned. Then maybe, in the real world, you can become a little better at understanding people you dislike.

In short, if I may be a little cheesy: Ain’t nobody flawless. Behold the bad. Consider the contrary and complicated. Examine the ugly, in literature and in life. That’s where the stories are, and that’s how they change us.

(Thanks for having me, Mississippi! The lemon icebox pie at The Mayflower blew my mind. I’ll be back.)

5 comments

  1. Hey, good subject. It’s not “unlikeable” in a character that stops me, but when I just can’t relate to the logic (or lack thereof) behind a character’s actions, when I really don’t get it and find I can’t empathise even a wee bit. Natashia the writer is in a great position to observe “non-boring” (boring as in mainstream) people

  2. I think you’re right about female characters getting short shrift if they’re unlikeable. Wolf of Wall Street is a great example. Would a she-wolf have been so successful or even made into a film?
    Sorry if there are typos, but I can’t see the text. It looks white to me even though the cursor is moving. Weird and yay rtouch typing.

  3. Hey those fried shrimp and okra look divine! For me it’s not whether characters are ‘likeable’ as such but when too many lack any kind of human complexity, especially a sense of humour, that I start to get bored. This is why I always ended up abandoning stories by Bret Eaton Ellis. Thinking about it, it’s always stories about cold, wealthy people that I get bored with, like The Talented Mr Ripley. But bring on the Becky Sharps!

  4. I like “unlikeable” characters. I am also attracted to unloveable dogs and cats. And people. I think the problem with my writing is that I am writing about characters who are only slightly flawed, unlike the majorly flawed people (and animals) in my life. Why? Because I never thought others would be able to empathize or identify with the kind of people I do. BTW, I recently discovered this page and really dig it.

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