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: