I found myself once, in college, dreading a deadline for a research paper in my advanced writing pedagogy class. (Bear with me here, I swear this post gets more interesting). I was at a loss. It had been a long semester, and I was burnt out. Luckily for me my professor said that I didn’t have to write about pedagogy (which would have been as boring as it sounds). I decided to write about my passion, YA Lit, and about a certain topic that had been on my mind: unlikable protagonists.
It’s gutsy to write a book with a main character who is intentionally unlikable (if your main character is unintentionally unlikable, then you have bigger problems.) I know many people who will stop reading a book if the main character is someone who grates on their nerves or could be the poster-child for their pet peeves.
I’ve totally stopped reading a book because of an unlikable character. But then again, I’ve devoured many a book whose main character and I would never, ever be friends with in real life.
So what’s the difference? To be honest, the whole topic is inherently subjective. Though my examples may be disputed, I’ll argue that my conclusion is solid: Whatever unlikable traits the character has, it’s essential that the character has at least one trait that makes her or him sympathetic.
My favorite example is Death from Zusak’s The Book Thief. At first, I didn’t think Death was an unlikable character. But he totally is, at least in theory. Death is the mythic figure who reaps souls at the end of their lives. He is traditionally feared—perhaps due to the fact that he is guided by the undeterrable hand of fate. No matter how you beg, plead, or play chess (bonus points if you can name that movie), he will take you when he says your time has come. So why doesn’t he immediately register as someone who begs to be disliked? In fact, Death is amazingly sympathetic. Props to Zusak. Death is compassionate despite his job; he sees colors where there are none to be found; he even loves humans, despite what he’s seen them do to each other. His final confession is [minor spoiler warning=just go read this masterpiece already] that he is “haunted by humans” (p.550).
Here’s a controversial example: Harry Potter. Just kidding! But no, really. I’m talking about Harry in Order of the Phoenix. He’s angry, whiny, and a touch irresponsible. The first few chapters are painful to read. He lashes out at Ron and Hermione and blames them for following Dumbledore’s orders. He won’t tell Dumbledore about any of his problems, though we as the readers are screaming at him to be sensible. It seems his worst nature is emerging. And yet. Every time I read Order I notice that despite my frustration with Harry I can also understand why he acts the way he does. I’m not even speaking about character motivations. I’m talking about straight-up sympathy. You would be frustrated if you were stuck at home while the man who swore to murder you runs amok. You would be frustrated if you were stuck at home because someone you trusted—and who you believed trusted you—ordered it. You would feel anger if you’d just seen someone die, had strange and dark dreams, and began seeing deathlike invisible horses. Like I said, totally sympathetic.
I could introduce a few examples of truly unlikable characters, but this post has been long enough. If anyone would like to add any heinous-but-sympathetic-characters in the comments, feel free.
[p.s. in case any of you are wondering how the paper turned out: crushed it.]