Praise for the Unlikeable Character

Praise for the Unlikeable Character

No matter how I much I love my characters, I have often received similar notes from literary agents when I send queries: “Your main character just isn’t very likeable. They have quirky, weird qualities … they complain … they sabotage their own progress …” and on and on. These agents then pass on my work with the tacit understanding that nobody wants to read about Negative Nellies or Debbie Downers or Complaining Karens, or whatever alliterative moniker you’d like to supply.

I started to question my writing abilities, and indeed, my standing as a human being. Why was I drawn to these unlikeable people? Why did I, in fact, find them interesting (and, dare I say, likeable)?  Wow. I guess I was just a Negative Nelly myself, an A-class Annie Anguish, a permanent Patty Poo-Poo on the Party. It was me, huh?

And then I started to watch a show called "Succession." You’ve probably heard of it—it won a ton of Emmys. I hadn’t watched it because when I read the descriptions of it, it sounded like a bunch of too-rich asshats tooling around in their private jets to tropical locations, screwing each other over with their diamond-studded emotional daggers. No thanks.

But so many writers I respected spoke highly of it, so one day I decided to give it a go. I watched Season One, Episode One. Geez. The patriarch, Logan Roy, was smart, passionate, tortured, greedy, power-hungry. His kids were various stripes on the same dismal candy cane: Kendall, the kid just hungry for dad’s approval; Roman, the kid who hid all his insecurities under a bravado of witty sexual innuendo; Connor, the hippy-weirdo peacenik who is actually a power-hungry snob pretending not to be; and Siobhan (Shiv for short! Like a knife! Like in the back!), the only daughter who wanted nothing to do with the family business, so she went into politics, which is just like the family business.

I did not LIKE any of them.

I had nothing in common with them.

And then I binge-watched Seasons 1-3 until I was caught up, and then I was angry that I’d have to wait a WEEK for the next installment.

I tried to explain to my husband, who dislikes fiction stories (irony!) about why I kept watching it. “They’re awful people,” I told him. “They’re complex. None of them has redeeming qualities at all.”

“So why would you watch that?”

I wondered, too. Why would I watch that?

Then I figured out why: they represent the shadow parts that all of us hold inside. And it’s fine if they are perfectly awful. Because we hold things within us that are perfectly awful. We all have qualities we’d prefer to change, or jettison altogether. But we can’t, because we're human. It’s built into our DNA. And seeing that reflected in fictional characters helps us realize a) we’re not that bad, and b) we have things in common with people even when we think we don’t.

We're living through a time when everyone who logs onto social media is subject to a public character assassination with every tweet and post. Flaws and mistakes are not permitted. You’d better say and do the right things all the time, or you'll be canceled, dealt with by a panel of your unknown, faceless peers—those perfect souls who will judge, jury, and convict you before you even take your thumb off the send button.

In that context, the Roy family and their various hangers-on make sense. They have all done unconscionable things. We watch them commit their crimes without remorse or consequence. We see them sabotage their relationships and sacrifice true intimacy for advantage. When people are hurt or killed by their callousness, they label these peons outside their circle as NRPI—"no real person involved." There is nothing redeeming about them at all.

We also see these things: children desperately wanting their parents’ approval and love. Elderly people terrified of dying or of being put out to pasture like a three-legged horse. People using sex as a punishment for the unforgiveable sin of wanting to be accepted and loved, twisting all of that into a torturous whip instead of a warm hug. Young people confused by the world and its unspoken rules, old people feeling like discarded, useless trash, rich people worried that their enormous influence will be taken away. Shadows. Things that live within all of us, wearing different masks.

Seeing our own shadows within fictional characters is nothing new, really—look at Holden Caulfield, Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois, every David Mamet character. We don’t see them redeemed and they are not likeable. We do see their fragility and the pain that has caused their sad state of affairs, and in that, maybe we can grow compassion. We could cultivate understanding of the inner world of people unlike us.

That seems to be something we could all use.

*Feature Photo: From left, Fisher Stevens, Alan Ruck, Brian Cox and Stephen Root in “Succession” / Macall B. Polay/HBO

Laura Preble’s books include the IPPY-award-winning Anna Incognito (soon to be a screenplay), Queen Geek Social Club, and Out. She is a journalist, sci-fi geek, librarian, and singer.
More posts by Laura Preble.
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