Bad Boys and Nasty Girls: The Unlikeable Characters We Love

Apparently my lead character in my work in progress is not “likeable” enough. “She’s shallow and materialistic,” one person declared.

I know. I made her that way. On purpose. I’ve also heard this before, about other characters I’ve written. One of those novels is now so overwritten it may never see the light of day. It tries to hard to somehow apologize for my protagonist, in that case a promiscuous young woman with an alcohol addiction.

I’m not dismissing the critiques. Writers benefit from having fresh eyes looking at our manuscripts, and as I work on my latest revisions, I have kept my readers’ valuable comments in mind.

But something bothers me about this likeability thing.

Turning to that vast repository of information and opinion, the Internet, I found other authors who are bothered by it, too. Daniel Swenson of Surlymuse.com wrote a thoughtful piece about this very subject. Roxane Gay also weighs in on Buzzfeed.com.

Granted, characters should be enticing. They should fascinate. But we don’t have to like them.

Take two of television’s most iconic antiheroes: Tony Soprano and Walter White. Believe it or not, I’m just now watching The Sopranos, and we didn’t catch up on Breaking Bad until after the finale. Both men are violent, sociopathic, despicable. Yet these are characters we remember.

Granted, in both cases we are watching the skill of extraordinary actors. In Tony Soprano, we see the lost, wounded little boy who suffers from depression and panic attacks as an adult. We also see, in spite of his mobster lifestyle, a guy having to deal with mouthy teenagers, aging parents, and other life problems we can all relate to. In Walter White, we feel the frustrations of a brilliant Everyman, for whom life has dealt repeated doses of unfairness.

These are also men, though Woody Allen’s caustic Blue Jasmine could give both men a run for their money on the female side. Television has also given us Glen Close’s Patty Hewes in Damages, though methinks the writers tried a bit too hard to soften Patty’s mean streak. She’s a lot more fun when she’s at her worst.

Truth is, my protagonist interests me. In all of my work, there seems to be a focus on redemption, on people growing into better versions of themselves. It feels more like the human journey to me. It’s why I prefer Spiderman and Batman to Superman. It’s why, from a story perspective, I prefer the Old Testament to the New. Those people were messed up…much like we all are.

What do you think? Who are your favorite heroes or antiheroes from books, television, or movies?

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