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:
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.
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.
“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, 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.
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou such a wishy-washy doofus? Shakespeare himself would likely be baffled by the elevation of Romeo to the position of “most romantic dude in literature” -- he spends his first scene in the play insisting he’s heartbroken over a girl he goes on to completely forget about the second he catches a glimpse of Juliet! Poor Rosaline (or rather, nice bullet-dodging, Rosaline). Romeo’s apparent penchant for wallowing in the romantic misery of unrequited love finds a new target in naive Juliet, who then dies for a guy who probably would have forgotten about her as soon as their honeymoon ended. Yes, Romeo is self-absorbed, fickle, and rather whiny, but we clearly love him anyway. His melodramatic antics add some humor for the benefit of the audience, and, despite his flaws, Romeo reminds us all of the urgency of young love. Who doesn’t want young love to work out??
We don’t have to explain why Humbert Humbert isn’t likable, do we? He is, after all, a sexual predator, and a remorseless one at that. Nabokov’s Lolita qualifies as a genuine masterpiece in large part because he makes the narrator, Humbert, simultaneously vile and fascinating. Even as we’re repulsed by his devious machinations and depraved crimes, his flowery self-justifications and perverse romanticization of his “love” for Lolita intrigue us. It’s hard to tear yourself away from a peek inside the mind of such a brilliantly loathsome man.
Even as the lovely Kitty makes the wise decision to marry virtuous Levin and find satisfaction in the quiet country life, another Russian society lady is making a far more disastrous choice. Anna’s tumble from grace sees her ostracized by her social circle, even her own family. Our heart goes out to poor Anna, so young and vibrant, who loses everything in the name of love. Her suffering seems far greater than warranted, and tied up in the sexist demands of a society that expected sexual purity and wifely obedience from its women. However, we can’t say we’d particularly want to stop by to chat with Anna ourselves, despite our sympathies; her impulsivity, self-absorption, and ultimate descent into hysteria seem somewhat off-putting on a personal level.
The snarky teenager par excellence, Holden whines, mocks, and drags his feet through the pages of The Catcher in the Rye. Though generations of teenagers have heard their own antisocial feelings in Holden’s diatribes against “phonies,” his negativity and judgmental nature seem likely to wear upon closer acquaintance. Most of us don’t really want to deal with constant, unrelenting cynicism in our daily lives. Holden’s grip on the American imagination hasn’t slipped, however; his colorful jargon and his encapsulation of the frustrations of the disaffected teenager ensure he’s always delightful to read about.
At first, Dorian isn't a very unlikable -- nor, for that matter, a very interesting -- dude. He’s super handsome and young, and good things seem to be coming his way. It’s all great! Until he idly wishes that a portrait his friend painted of him would age in his stead so that he could remain beautiful forever -- and, against all the odds, he gets his wish. With his looks unharmed by the hedonistic lifestyle he’s now living, Dorian plunges recklessly into the pursuit of sensual pleasure. Who doesn’t love a bit of partying? Of course, his antics far exceed normal fun, veering into the illicit and even cruel. There are plenty of party-goers who seem less likely to place you in physical danger than Dorian, who proves to be a rather terrible friend to have around. But it’s the very wildness of his downward spiral, and the corresponding disfiguration of his portrait, that makes him irresistible to the reader. What dreadful sin will he commit next??
The unnamed narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground doesn’t try very hard to endear himself to his readers. An isolated, frustrated man, he’s warped by his own self-hatred and his inability to have meaningful relationships with others. Even when he wants to connect with another person, he instinctively spurns them and winds up even more alone and bitter. A friendship with him would mean, at the very least, allowing him to treat you badly in the knowledge that deep down, it’s more about his poor self-esteem than it is about you. A casual acquaintance seems less fraught, but would be awkward at best. As a narrator, however, the Underground Man engrosses us -- his monologue reveals the self-loathing thought patterns that can lead to alienation and antisocial behavior, and his cynical but educated views on philosophy and aesthetics provoke thought.
Even those of us who’ve never read Charles Dickens’ classic probably know the character Miss Havisham. The addled guardian of protagonist Pip’s icy beloved, Estella, Miss Havisham guides her charge to eschew love and emotional connection. Not only does she train Estella to be heartless, Miss Havisham herself cuts a creepy figure. After being jilted on her wedding day decades before, she remained in her wedding dress and allowed the cake to rot away on the table. A spectral, decaying figure, driven mad by her long-ago rejection, she seems positively frightening to meet in real life and even gives readers a twinge of horror on the page. Of course, the eerieness and the sheer oddity of the character are exactly what compel us to keep reading through our horror.