The Ones We Love to Hate

  • By I.S. Berry
  • April 16, 2024

Why I like unlikable characters.

The Ones We Love to Hate

Unlikable. That’s how an early Goodreads reviewer described Shane Collins, the protagonist in my debut novel, The Peacock and the Sparrow: a cynical, alcoholic spy who tries to salvage fragments of his life amid the tumult of the Arab Spring. One reader noted, “I haven’t bonded with the main character yet.” Another knocked a star off his otherwise great review because my book didn’t leave him “feeling good at the end.”

Don’t get me wrong: There have been plenty of raves — and readers are unquestionably entitled to their tastes — but I’ve started to detect a pattern.

The reactions have prompted me to do a bit of literary soul-searching. Are likable, relatable protagonists essential? What draws us to a protagonist? What emotions do we want to experience when reading? Do we wish to be educated, affirmed, challenged, coddled, or entertained — or all of the above?

It’s easy to see the appeal of the virtuous protagonist — the Pips and Emmas of the world. They offer a kind of extrapolated kinship. They’ve made decisions we understand and usually support. They’ve overcome obstacles and hardship. They’re misunderstood; they’ve suffered. They’ve blundered but have good intentions. We root for and cry over them. We find ourselves in these books.

I get it. Growing up, I worshipped Anne of Green Gables; laughed with and felt for Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; cried my eyes out when Leslie died in Bridge to Terabithia. These characters helped me navigate childhood and some of its hardest issues — being an outsider, bigotry, heartbreak, loss. A book was assurance, therapy, and validation all bound up into one tidy volume: a gentle “Shh, it’ll be okay. I get it.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped craving likable characters. The best analog I’ve found is in Thomas Cole’s painting at the National Gallery of Art, “The Voyage of Life,” a quadriptych which depicts, in the form of a river-borne journey, the decline of beauty and innocence. If you live long enough, bad stuff starts happening in spades. People divorce. Lose jobs. Die. They reject and betray and fail you. Adults-only traumas open their doors. (In my case, I spent a year in wartime Baghdad for the CIA.)

Your country nearly collapses. A pandemic kills millions. You realize the world can be horrid — and so can the people in it. Sometimes it feels like these are the only people in it, or at least the main actors. As one author I know explained her dark plot points, “I’m not 14 anymore.” Comedian Marc Maron similarly quipped, “If you have hope, what are you, fucking 7?”

I find myself seeking a certain truth in art. And illumination. After all, what’s the purpose of books if not to help us make sense of things? To probe the depths, even the muddiest ones? If likable characters help us understand ourselves (because, of course, we’re all likable), unlikable ones help us understand others — and our world.

I’d rather explore why someone blackmails, lies, or harms than why they make the same decisions I would. I want to understand why boys stranded on an island turn against each other. Why Carrie Meeber cheats on her husband, then scorns her lover until he’s reduced to abject poverty. What do these characters tell us about our world and human nature — and the intersection of the two?

And then there’s the hidden reward. Flaws and redemption come wrapped in the same messy package, and unlikable characters dare you to untangle them — to ferret out the virtuous kernels, to pan gold from sludge. I welcome the challenge of finding the good, of connecting to a seemingly unconnectable person. In Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (spoiler alert), a boy longing to be in society’s upper echelon drowns his pregnant girlfriend. Unlikable, to say the least. But I felt sympathy for this character seduced by the American socioeconomic myth of happiness and prosperity, who never had a real chance to succeed.

Or take Lolita. Humbert Humbert, of course, is a monster. Yet he has a whit of humanity, pathos. “I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope,” he says, watching children play. “…[And] then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is a psychotic murderer. Take your pick between the dueling protagonists in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a privileged American remains silent while his Italian lover faces execution. Filled with unlikable characters, yes, but these books all reveal hard truths about time and place, our society and institutions.

In J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a white professor in post-apartheid South Africa rapes a student, unapologetic even when his own daughter is raped. None of the characters — Black or white — is likable. But the story’s brilliance is in its suggestion that apartheid dehumanizes everyone, oppressors and victims. It’s illuminating, not rejuvenating. The Nobel Prize committee agreed.

Maybe it’s a question of expectations. Maybe we’re okay with unsavory characters if we contextualize them from the outset. Warning: This is a book about desperate poverty or subjugation or teen angst or the mafia. (Certainly, we seem to tolerate schmucks in nonfiction: Consider The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.) Maybe it’s when we throw the offending characters into situations where we expect something else — glamor or heroism or moral virtue — that we’re disappointed. But is that fair?

My novel, The Peacock and the Sparrow, is about the murk and darkness of espionage. Shane Collins is not Mr. Rogers or even James Bond. But having spied for the CIA for six years, I can attest that Collins is realistic. And he has redemptive kernels — a desire to make a dent in the world and divine the truth behind the Arab Spring; a stunted but growing conscience. He had abusive and alcoholic parents. Spying is not always a happy story, and that was my point.

I get that people sometimes just want to escape reality. But unlikable characters are an essential part of literature. If readers find themselves recoiling from a character, I hope they’ll consider what lies beneath the surface and what this says about our world. These, after all, are questions worth answering.

I.S. Berry spent six years as an operations officer for the CIA, serving in wartime Baghdad and elsewhere. Her debut spy novel, The Peacock and the Sparrow, was named a Best Book of the Year by the New Yorker and NPR and has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. She’s a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Haverford College.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus