Writer Problem #2 – The “Unlikable” Main Character

What’s up, readers and writers? I’m currently up at 12:20 am (my favorite writing time, aka the only time I do not fear that the baby will start screaming and interrupt me), and I’m here to share a topic that has been absolutely plaguing me for the last few weeks. I’ll tell you why.

This month I read a novel called The Gates of Evangeline. If you enjoy Southern Gothic mysteries with a bit of supernatural appeal, you should give it a try. It was a pretty good read, (I gave it four out of five stars on Goodreads. It was good but I wasn’t awe-inspired). But what this novel really got me thinking about was the turmoil writers (and sometimes readers) have with the so-called unlikable main character. Charlie Cates is a recently bereaved mother who lost her four-year-old son to a sudden brain aneurysm no one saw coming. Afterwards, she starts to receive strange messages in dreams from either long-dead, missing, or hurt children seeking help. It leads her to an old, unsolved case of an abducted two-year-old boy who went missing thirty years ago from a high-end family in Louisiana. I was immediately attracted to Charlie’s grief, since I too have lost a baby. However, as the story started to progress and I witnessed Charlie’s interactions with the people of Evangeline, grief couldn’t make up for her very unappealing, judgmental attitude. Charlie was a New York elitist who wrote for a magazine called Sophisticate before she lost her little boy. On par with many an elitist attitude, she was quick to turn up her nose to non-career oriented women who were just “nice”, to more conservative opinions that didn’t match her’s, and to often inwardly berate herself for ending up with a guy who is not her usual type and doesn’t match her political and social standards. Let’s just say many of her comments came across as, well, snobbish. Despite not being much of a fan of the main character, I stuck with the book anyway. Why?

That’s the question. Do readers often stick with novels in which the protagonist isn’t wholly likable, or was this just a case of one writer appreciating another writer’s dare to write a well-rounded female protagonist with a bully of flaws enough to keep on trucking? Turns out, maybe that isn’t the right question to ask at all.

Writers have a hard time with unlikable characters, (I see you nodding, if not than why are you here?), because there are a plethora of opinions about them. Some people say don’t write your protagonist as unlikable. Other people say it’s necessary. Some are already sick of unlikable female protagonists who seem to just be unlikable as a synonym for being strong. Some agents even recommend for first-time authors that the main character be a likable one, or you might as well throw yourself into a human-sized rejection bin of disappointment and self-loathing.

So… where the hell do we go from here?

As it is with writing a piece of fiction, wording is important. And the term unlikable isn’t the best wording. I would rather like to call these characters relatable.

What the hell, Ali? You’re saying that we should relate to the characters who irritate and annoy and act like assholes?

Yup.

I continued with The Gates of Evangeline because on one of her many layers, I related to Charlie. I understood her grief process and I wanted to see how her character and story developed over time. I see a trend in a lot of entertainment today that the most disliked and the most celebrated characters are the ones who are often the most inherently human. We’re all a little bit of an asshole sometimes. We all occasionally make crass judgments, think cruel things, are quick to get angry and quick to accuse others before we accuse ourselves. We don’t like seeing these qualities in fictional characters because deep-down most of us hate that those qualities exist in the first place. Which is why they are usually reserved for none other than villains. But what saves the so-called unlikable character? It’s the small moments of good, the slivers of selflessness, and the hope we have in them that they will get smarter and become a little less of a jerk over time.

So here is my suggestion, for myself and for you: if you have a character who has flaws abounding, give them those small moments. Round them out until they are like a crinkled piece of paper made into a really uneven ball, giving them as many complications as there are spikes. The characters with obvious flaws are the most human, and because of that we want them to succeed to help us believe that we can succeed and overcome our own bad idiosyncrasies. Give them the right foundation, and they won’t be easily forgotten.

Hopefully you related to this yourself and you are going to go write and read books! It will get you places, I 100% believe that. Stay tuned for more Writer Problems in the future and a lot of fun book-celebrating along the way. Thanks for reading!

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One thought on “Writer Problem #2 – The “Unlikable” Main Character

  1. I agree. Imperfections in any character make them “relatable”, more “human” and makes the character’s reactions to plotline events seem more real in our imaginations.

    Like

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