Unlikable Characters and Why I Don’t Mind Them

One of my favorite podcasts is What Should I Read Next? with Anne Bogel. As a longtime listener of the show, something I’ve repeatedly noticed is how often guests say they dislike a book because it doesn’t have any likable characters. The reader is unable to relate to or root for the characters which prevent them from enjoying the book. I’ve noticed this in some book reviews, as well. 

Whenever I hear such a thing, I always pause and wonder why liking or relating to a character is vital for some readers. When I read, my priorities are good writing and a strong story with excellent characterization. Characters can be truly despicable people as long as they’re written compellingly and with dimension. 

Book cover for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

One of my favorite mysteries is Gone Girl, and the two protagonists are both unlikable and untrustworthy. Gillian Flynn crafted such a well-written, suspenseful story that such a thing didn’t matter to me; in fact, it made the novel even more exciting. 

But there’s also been a case where unlikable characters have backfired. Earlier this year, I read Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. Here’s the review I posted on Goodreads: 

I’ve had the hardest time deciding what I think about this book. One of the reasons I was drawn to it was because I’d seen it compared to Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn, two writers whose work I love. While I understand why one would make those comparisons, Tartt and Flynn offer a subtly and complexity that I just didn’t see in this novel. I was interested enough in the story to finish reading it, but I can’t say I truly enjoyed the process due to the outlandish nature of certain characters and their rather gross behavior. One thing I did really like, though, was how this book used social media to explore how addictive likes and comments can be when you’re desperate to be seen and loved.

Social Creature didn’t work for me for a number of reasons, and one of them was because of the characters. They were unlikable for sure, but my problem with the characterization went deeper than that because their badness seemed more clichéd than real and organic to the story. 

The unlikable characters in Gone Girl (whose behavior was also outlandish) seemed ideally suited to the world Flynn created for them, whereas the unlikable characters in Social Creature seemed contrived. It was as if Flynn wrote her novel because she thought of these interesting people and wanted to explore their story and Burton wrote hers because she thought of an exciting plot. 

There’s nothing wrong or right about either method. Social Creature got some rave reviews, and I know people who despised Gone Girl. Literary likes and dislikes are subjective, and every reader has the right to read whatever she wants without judgment. 

To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much point to this post, but I just wanted to get out some of the ideas I’ve been stewing on. I always like getting feedback from readers, but I’d love it even more for this post. 

Do you like or dislike books based on unlikable characters? What are some examples of books that did or didn’t work for you? What’s the most important quality when you’re looking for a good book? Let me know in the comments below.

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