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  • Danielle Hayden

Unlikeable On Purpose

This past Sunday, there was a cool ​seminar​ from Corporeal Writing called "Unlikeable on Purpose." I knew I wanted to ​sign up​ based on ​its​ description:

​"Underneath the chatter and hum from the market and readers about how much trouble they have with unlikeable characters lies a different truism: unlikeable characters are punk rock. They are qualitatively different from antagonists or villains, because face it: they are us. Unlikeable characters don't need you to like them because their sense of self doesn't come from praise or adoration. Their complications and motivations and actions and reactions are intriguing because they don't follow the social script of good citizenship. So if you are interested in strategies for creating anti-heroes, misfits, and unlikeable characters no one can forget or help falling for, join me for a three hour webinar where we will look at some phenomenal examples and then zoom in on six writing strategies. Bring your favorite unlikeable character to the table. Confess: we love them!"


I cannot deny that Lidia Yuknavitch leading the workshop factored into its appeal to me, but that description​ is what really​ had me sold.

I thought immediately of Iago from Shakespeare's Othello, who is probably my favorite unlikeable character. But there are so many good examples from literature and film, too (I'd say I like cinema just as much as I like reading. Unlike books though, I don't want to create movies myself).



Something that irritates me a bit these days is when people disparage a work (often times without even finishing it) because a character wasn't likeable enough. Something else that I've grown a little weary of is hearing writers advise other writers that their characters must be likeable in some way. But, why? Why does one need to like a fictional character? We're not inviting the villains to dine with us on the terrace. We are reading a made-up story. I sometimes see an over-emphasis on making unfavorable characters seem more likeable to appease readers, lest they be turned off. I remember in the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) was still horrid but much more likeable and humanized than in the book. This bothered me, and not just because I can often be one of those annoying purists who wants the movie to follow the book as closely as possible. It bothered me because one of the great things about the book was that she was just so abominable, the epitome of a bitchy boss. Can't we allow space for a fictional character to just be a bitch? Or to just be evil? Most people do fall somewhere in the middle of Ned Flanders and Jack the Ripper, but it's okay to invent someone whom we love to hate. Think of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. She's a terrible person who I found to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Yet I still enjoyed the film and the book. Very much, in fact. Because Gone Girl is a good story and Gillian Flynn is a good writer.


When it comes to characters, my sole request is that they be interesting, not that they necessarily be likeable or even relatable. A book is not 'bad' just because the character is fucked up or wholly unlike me. Again, it all depends on how well written the story is. I prefer good people, but sometimes good people aren't as compelling in a text. Complex characters or even the morally ambiguous are fine too, but there's nothing wrong with the entirely nefarious.

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"Don't you ever mind," she asked suddenly, "not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?" -Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth