Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Exploring the dark side through unlikable characters

Eileen posted about one of my favorite topics yesterday. And it's one I realize I'm slightly hypocritical about as an author vs a reader.

And since I'm not decisive enough to pick a "best movie ever" (but I was considering doing something controversial like Clueless) I decided to continue on with yesterday's topic.

As a reader, I love books featuring protagonists I wouldn't necessarily want to meet or talk to in real life. I find it interesting to try to understand how the mind of someone works, even if I wouldn't like them.

To use one of Eileen's examples, as disgusting as Humbert Humbert is as a character (and I agree that he is), I found Lolita a pretty fascinating book, and that novel helped me to understand, not only him, but also Lolita and her mother. I can't imagine liking any one of those three people in real life, but I found them fascinating to read about in a book (or watch in a movie).

Maybe that's one of the many things I like fiction. Whether it's reading or watching movies or TV shows, fiction lets me gain insight into people, without having to actually meet them or talk to them. It helps me gain insight into the uglier parts of human nature.

On the other hand, I can respect and appreciate that not every reader wants that kind of experience from books. I think my personality type strives to understand others and fiction helps me fulfil that need/desire/interest and I think that's why I enjoy difficult characters in fiction.

But, and here's the hypocritical part, I've spent a LOT of time as a writer trying to figure out how to create and introduce characters that readers will like. It's something I struggle to do better.

That said, I don't think I'm going to apologize for that... The kind of stories I've been writing, at least the last, um 5 or 6 of my books, are stories that require protagonists that readers can get behind and root for. I think it's particularly important in plot-heavy stories which often have less emphasis on character growth. (Character growth/change still has to be there... but it's often not what the book is about.)

I'm trying to think of other examples of books about characters I pretty much hated... Maybe the main character from the Shopaholic books. I didn't *hate* her but I think I'd be too aggravated with her to be her friend in real life, even though I enjoyed reading about her and laughed a lot.

I'm sure I've read others, but right now I'm coming up with more characters from TV than books. Like Tony Soprano (or Carmella, for that matter), Dexter, Dexter's sister, Don Draper, Carrie or Brody from Homeland, just about anyone on Son's of Anarchy, and even Schmidt from New Girl. All people I love to watch on TV, but I'd never want to hang out with in real life.

Can you think of any books you've loved with an unlikable protagonist?


Stephanie Doyle said...

You know I really can't. And even though I probably shouldn't... I do like Carrie and Brody. I could totally have beers with them and be like... so guys what's with all the cray cray.

And I like Schmidt too. Maybe that's my problem. Maybe people think my heroines are difficult because I'm difficult.

I think I need a shrink now. Thanks Maureen!

Maureen McGowan said...


I guess I wouldn't mind being around those examples either. But I don't think I'd choose them as friends, per se. :)

Eileen said...

The best example I can think of was Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (or whatever it was). It wasn't so much that I didn't like the protagonist as I knew he would be very challenging to be around. It was fascinating, however, to see the world through his eyes.

I think it's easier to tolerate a TV show or a movie with an unlikeable protagonist. You're not going to spending as much time with that character or in that character's world view. I would not want to hang out with Carrie from Homeland, but I love that show.

Sarah said...

My favorite unlikable protagonists are the protagonists in Courtney Summers' YA novels. These are not girls I'd want to hang out with (they'd probably be really mean to me), but I sure empathize with them. My favorite of hers is probably Regina from Some Girls Are, who epitomizes the mean girl.

I would actually like to see more characters--especially female--in novels that aren't so "likable," but it seems like a lot of readers expectations are that they should like the main characters in books.

Maureen McGowan said...

Sarah, I just did a signing with Courtney on Sunday! She is so lovely.
Eileen, another great example with The Curious Incident...

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