Unlikable Characters — Why I Love Them

As a writer,  I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view — “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people — it’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”  Claire Messud

We all have favorite characters in literature — but often, those aren’t the most likable or admirable characters. They’re usually the most interesting ones.  Jay Gatsby is complicated and fascinating, but would you want to have dinner with him? (Although you might want to go to one of his parties.) Holden Caulfield would probably be annoying. And who wants a friend as conniving and disingenuous as Scarlett O’Hara?

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud (The Emperor’s Children, The Woman Upstairs) took issue with the idea that characters should be likable. When asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora (the protagonist of The Woman Upstairs), would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud answers, “What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert . .  Hamlet . . . Raskolnikov . . .Antigone. . . If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a friend for me?’ but “Is this character alive?’ “.

A couple of weeks ago, our store hosted a luncheon for Maggie Shipstead in honor of the paperback release of her wonderful comedy of manners, Seating Arrangements. Maggie mentioned that she had participated via Skype in book group discussions of her novel and that a common criticism was that the characters weren’t likable. Seating Arrangements takes place over a single weekend, on an island very much like Nantucket, as a family of New England WASPs gathers for a wedding. Not everyone in the novel behaves well — in fact, most of the characters behave rather badly. Winn, the father of the bride, lusts after one of the bridesmaids and is obsessed with joining a golf club that won’t admit him. No, I don’t want him at my next party. A lesser writer would have portrayed Winn as a stereotypical upper-class jerk, but Shipstead makes him come marvelously alive.

The runaway hit of summer 2012 was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — and it’s still selling so well in hardcover that it hasn’t been released in paperback yet. Now there’s a book with unlikable characters! Even Nick, the supposed “good guy” in the book, is not really a sympathetic character.  Amy is the “horse thief” in the book and certainly Flynn tells us what this horse thief is like. Is that why Gone Girl has been so popular? Or is it the intricate plot with twist after twist — and that controversial ending?

coverFor me, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, was this year’s Gone Girl. (Actually, the Wall Street Journal calls it the “European Gone Girl“, but I thought of it first, I promise.) The entire novel unfolds over the course of a dinner at a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. Two couples meet to discuss a problem with their teenage sons. We gradually learn that the boys have committed a crime. But what is it? Who among the four parents is culpable? Not one of the characters in this book is someone you’d like at your dinner table. In her review of this book for the New York Times, Claire Messud says, “North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable. This premise is strange, given that few real people are thoroughly nice and those few aren’t interesting.  Surely what actually matters is that characters clear this vital hurdle: that they be interesting.” The characters in The Dinner clear that hurdle . . . how about a book group meeting over dinner to discuss them and their motivations?

For more on likable/unlikable characters in literature, check out this link to Page-Turner,  the New Yorker’s book blog: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/would-you-want-to-be-friends-with-humbert-humbert-a-forum-on-likeability.html.

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7 thoughts on “Unlikable Characters — Why I Love Them

  1. I loved Messud’s comments in that article and totally agreed with her (though Nora bored me through most of The Woman Upstairs, except for her ragey parts at the beginning and end). I’m firmly in the camp that LOVED The Dinner, though it seems to be a highly polarizing novel. I just adore interesting characters, whether I find them despicable or not, and great, slow burn of suspense.

    • I agree with you about Nora — I grew tired of her as well. And I too am finding that The Dinner is a novel people either love or hate. I thought it was brilliant!

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