06/30/2014 07:37 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2014

11 Unlikable Classic Book Characters We Love To Hate


Though most readers have fond memories of yearning to be “real-life friends” with lovable fictional characters, from Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter, many of the books we love center around somewhat less admirable people. The characters represented -- unreliable narrators, fatally flawed protagonists, and obnoxious bit players -- don’t always seem to be people we’d like to have pick us up after a root canal or even meet us for a weekly happy hour. Despite the unsuitability of these characters for real-life friendship, or even real-life acquaintanceship, when confined to fiction their irritating qualities seem more compelling than repellant.

Last year, Claire Messud infamously responded to a question about the likability of the protagonist of her book, The Woman Upstairs, by defending the value of characters we don't much admire: "We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t 'is this a potential friend for me?' but 'is this character alive?'" What really makes fictional characters worth reading isn’t likability, exactly, but complexity, richness and the intangible charisma that keeps readers invested in their story. At any rate, likable people rarely make for an exciting narrative. It’s the flaws, ranging from minor foibles to horrible secrets, that add spice to the reading and raise the stakes of the narrative.

Unlikable, but well-written, characters generally fall into a few basic categories. There's the antihero, a protagonist who flouts legal and moral guidelines but still somehow draws us into wary sympathy. There's the colorful secondary character, whose attention-grabbing quirks (ranging from humorously irritating to grotesquely evil) inject some flavor into the proceedings, providing comic relief or thrills of horror. Then, of course, there are the flawed protagonists whose shortcomings are more annoying than relatable, but who can't be fairly described as bad people. They just make us want to roll our eyes.

A great character may or may not be likable, but being intriguing and vivid is a must.

Here are 11 characters we love to read about -- even if we don’t like them very much:

Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice
As Mrs. Bennet would say, “Oh, Mr. Collins!” This guy has a special quality that makes him both repulsive and ceaselessly amusing. The social-climbing vicar, a cousin of the Bennet sisters who will inherit their father’s property, turns up early in Pride and Prejudice with the stated objective of marrying one of his cousins. Immediately, his nonstop humble-bragging and studied name-dropping mark him out for our heroine Elizabeth’s ridicule. In every subsequent appearance, his character’s cringe-inducing obsequiousness and lack of social graces steal the show -- while making him seem like an utterly annoying dinner companion. Still, the floweriness of his pre-planned compliments, the utter lack of self-awareness, and the cloying devotion to his wealthy patroness all add a dash of much-appreciated absurdity to the pages of Austen’s lively romantic comedy.
Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda
Jane Austen mastered the art of the unlikable but scene-stealing bit character. George Eliot, however, owns the simultaneously unlikable but sympathetic primary character. There’s the arrogant but idealistic Dr. Lydgate in Middlemarch, the oafish but brotherly Tom in The Mill on the Floss -- and, most of all, the vain Gwendolen Harleth of Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen, along with the titular Daniel, is one of the main figures in this sprawling novel, and she’s the scheming, narcissistic foil to his moral, upstanding hero figure. While Daniel is rediscovering his Jewish identity and falling in love with the good-hearted Mirah, Gwendolen is attempting to use her striking beauty to secure her family’s financial security, only to find herself trapped in an abusive marriage. While Gwendolen’s vanity, sense of entitlement, and casual mistreatment of those around her don’t suggest she’d be a charming companion, it’s hard not to feel for her marital struggles and to root for her to overcome. Needless to say, her sections of the novel are far more compelling than those dedicated to blandly likable Daniel and Mirah.
Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces
“Flatulent.” “Slothful.” “Perverse.” “Oaf.” “Bag of wind.” These constitute just a few of the terms applied to the hero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The satirical novel rose to unlikely prominence, including mainstream popularity and the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, after a long and rocky road to publication. But it’s not the protagonist’s sheer charm that got it there. Ignatius, an eccentrically dressed, pompous misfit, does little throughout the book other than fail to hold down small jobs and pontificate self-importantly about the perversion of modern culture and the philosophy of Boethius. Though he has a friend in pen pal and fellow radical Myrna Minkoff, it’s obvious why Ignatius has few pals. His bloviating would be irritating in real life, but in the pages of Toole’s novel it’s nothing short of hysterical. Few literary clowns have captured the public’s heart more than Ignatius J. Reilly.
Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
Becky, the social-climber-iest social climber in all of literature, never allows for a dull moment. The anti-heroine of Thackeray’s vast Vanity Fair starts out as the impoverished orphan of a feckless artist and dancer, but she claws her way to the top -- or, at least, to the position of daughter-in-law to a baronet. Quite the user, Becky exploits her wealthier friends, employers, and purported loved ones to put herself in a good position to inherit a peerage, as well as to obtain endless credit to fund an opulent lifestyle. At every turn we discover a new sign of Becky’s sociopathic behavior, but we can’t look away -- certainly we’re not reading the book to hear about her stodgy, sweet friend Amelia. Though she steps on a lot of people in pursuit of the wealth and status she seeks, on some level we can’t help but root for her ceaseless scheming to pay off.