Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unlikeable Characters in Fiction

I workshopped my (unpublished) novel many times, in many settings, and one comment I heard not infrequently concerned how "unlikeable" my protagonist was. I suppose I became something of a defender of unlikeable characters for awhile, but in all honesty, I haven't given them a whole lot of thought in recent times.

That changed this weekend, when I read the latest issue of One Story, Joe Meno's "Children are the Only Ones who Blush." And it didn't take me very long to decide that I really disliked the protagonist's sister, "Jane."

For one thing, Jane is a bully. For example, she just won't be satisfied until she manages to get her (quite likely straight) brother to declare his homosexuality.

Jane's anti-Israel and anti-Semitic tendencies also had a lot to do with my reaction to her.
"That sounds fucking stupid," Jane cursed. "That's exactly what the world needs. More childish, performance-art bullshit. Why don't you do something meaningful? Like confront what's happening in the Middle East?"
Which wouldn't raise my antennae, had it not been followed so quickly by:
"Like I bet that girl never even heard of the Situationists. I bet she has no idea what's going on in Palestine right now."
And here's a gem of dialogue between Jane and her brother. Jane is the first speaker:
"I guess we should just stop worrying about your severe emotional issues because, all of a sudden, you like some Jewish girl."
"What? She's not Jewish."
"She's definitely Jewish."
"So what? Mom's Jewish," I said.
"You are so completely clueless. Why don't you screw this girl and get it over with? And maybe then you'll be ready to admit what your problem really is."
"I don't want to screw anyone."
"Bullshit. You want to screw her in her little Jew butt."
Charming, isn't she, that Jane?

What perhaps troubles me the most is that I suspect some readers won't merely find Jane's statements unobjectionable. They'll like her all the more for expressing them!

On the other hand, I have to tip my hat to any writer who inspires passionate feelings in readers. The intensity of my negative response to Jane is, in fact, a tribute to Meno's skills. I'd like to think that my unlikeable novel protagonist, and another character who might well fall under the unlikeable label (I've been thinking him a lot this weekend because of a tie to Walter Cronkite in his story), reflect just a fraction of the same ability.


Lori said...

I read that story and had a similar dislike for Jane. But that was manufactured by Meno, so I had to admire the work.

Have you read Gillian Flynn's _Dark Places_? The protagonist starts out very unlikeable, but you end up rooting for her anyway. It might be a good read to figure out how an unlikeable character can somehow be worth sticking with. Also, it's a fun summer read.

Katie Cappello said...

Lisa Selin Davis also has an unlikeable protagonist in her debut novel, Belly. I agree with Lori that there must be some reason to stick with a hard-to-take character, and oftentimes that reason is stellar writing on the part of the author. Good luck with your novel!

Erika D. said...

Thanks for the comments, Lori and Katie. And for the reading suggestions.