In Praise of Unlikable Characters

October 8, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 25 6 min read

1.
coverMarcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie is one of those books that came to my attention through the chatter of the booksellers with Twitter accounts who make my life so expensive. When it comes to following the ecstatic recommendations of career booksellers, I’m admittedly a bit of a sheep; I have a perpetually evolving list of books to buy, because these people never stop reading and recommending things. This almost always works out well. They’ve only failed me once. They are, generally speaking, readers of impeccable taste.

covercovercoverBy last week I’d heard about Bad Marie a half-dozen times or so and I’d mentally placed it on an unwritten “books to buy after next month’s royalty check comes in” list along with Aurorarama, A Geography of Secrets, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and two or three other no-doubt-brilliant titles, but then the author went and friended me on Facebook.

I didn’t recognize my new acquaintance’s name, but there in her bio was the title of the book I’d heard so much about. Also, she seemed friendly. The next day I had some time to kill in Grand Central Station, and found myself browsing in the station bookstore. There was Bad Marie staring up at me from the table for the fourth time in as many bookstores, so I threw caution to the wind and scored a copy. It felt a little illicit, because there are months when fifteen dollars is a not-insignificant sum. I find this actually fitting, because everything about this book is illicit and the heroine is frequently strapped for cash.

Bad Marie describes a time that might be a pivotal moment in the life of Marie, or might, just as likely, be the beginning of the end. Marie is thirty years old, employed as a full-time nanny to her uptight and controlling friend Ellen’s two-year-old daughter. The two-year-old, Caitlin, is the light of Marie’s life, her “better half”, her darling. It’s a dead-end job, but Marie is more or less content. She is without ambition. Impulse control is a problem. She spent six years of her twenties in prison for accessory to murder and bank robbery.

The arrangement crumbles when Marie, who enjoys taking baths with Caitlin and doesn’t think it’s such a big deal to drink on the job, passes out in the bathtub. Ellen and her dashing French husband Benoît come home early that evening, and Marie wakes to find the two of them staring down at her; Ellen aghast, her husband with evident appreciation. By the next day she’s been fired, and within a week she’s en route to Paris with Caitlin and Benoît.

I started Bad Marie at the beginning of my morning commute. By the end of my return trip home that afternoon I wasn’t done yet and it wasn’t really possible to enter my apartment and get on with my life until I found out how the book ended, so I holed up in a café for forty minutes until I’d finished the last page. I’m filled with admiration for the work.

It’s a fast, fearless little book about a woman who does very bad things. Marie is supremely conniving. “I gave you this job against my better judgment,” Ellen tells her in a restaurant, the day after the bathtub-and-whisky incident.

“I’m really busy at work, Marie. I have an important job. I have a career, Marie. I swear to God, I don’t have time to look for a new nanny right now.”
“I’ve inconvenienced you,” Marie said, wondering what the fuck Ellen was talking about. Ellen was worried about her job. Marie was going to wreck her marriage. Marie might have held off, had she been allowed to keep her job.

By any rational measure, this is not a pleasant person. Marie is vengeful, and she’s unsophisticated—her main complaint about France is that they speak so much French over there—but she has a talent for survival, and I found that I adored her. More than that, I found her refreshing.

2.
Authors are too timid, it seems to me sometimes, in the face of the demand for conventionally sympathetic characters. “I didn’t like any of the characters” is a common Amazon reviewer’s refrain—or, I don’t know, maybe that’s just what they say about the books that I write. They say it like it’s a bad thing.

coverI’m not entirely unsympathetic. I read John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich recently, and was so thoroughly disgusted by Rabbit’s son Nelson that I had to keep cheating on the book in order to get through it. This speaks volumes, I think, about Updike’s brilliance in character development. It’s rare to encounter a character so maddeningly real.

Nelson is a whiner, and nothing’s ever his fault. I found it impossible to spend extended periods of time in Nelson’s company, so every few dozen pages I’d put the book down and take a break with another novel, read something else til I was ready to come back again. It wasn’t until Nelson’s wife echoed my thoughts in the text—“You’re spoiled and you’re a bully”—that it became possible to read on without reservations.

coverOn the other hand, deeply flawed characters are interesting. I will never forget Nelson Angstrom, which is more than I can say for most characters I encounter in fiction. One of the most memorable books from my early teens was Ruth Rendell’s Live Flesh. I read through a great many of my mother’s mass market paperbacks, and this one stands out in memory. I don’t have a copy now, and I don’t remember if it was good or not. What I do remember is that the book’s narrated by an ex-con who, in the years before he went to jail, raped several women and crippled a police officer. Making your first-person narrator a serial rapist is a shockingly bold choice, and it’s one of the few books from that period that I remember clearly.

In her new novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, Edan Lepucki (a Millions staff writer) takes on a more conventionally distasteful narrator. You’ve met girls like Joellyn, or at least, I’ve met girls like Joellyn. She’s pretty, superior, and a little heartless, an entitled young woman who hasn’t, one senses, had to face the consequences of her actions very frequently: when she can’t pay her phone bill, she just sends it to her mother. She’s playing at adulthood. Her mother will catch her if she falls.

“But what’s pathetic about us also makes us human,” Lepucki writes, and that rings as true as anything I’ve read. Perhaps it isn’t that Joellyn is heartless, exactly. Perhaps the problem is one of misplaced energy, the wrong heart for her profession, a freelance graphic designer with a warrior’s soul:

When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what kind of woman I would become, but I had a hunch. I dreamt of Valkyries, warriors. I stole the belt from my father’s bathrobe and used it to tie saucepans to my chest so that no sword could pierce my heart. I used the saucepan lid as a shield. I imagined that my fingernails were weapons, and my teeth too. On long car rides, I saw myself running along the freeway shoulder, or in the brush, barefoot but in full armor. I assumed the woman I’d become would be vicious and beautiful, the roar of some exotic animal made physical. It’s not so strange, to have high expectations.

This is a girl who requires an arena for combat. It seems to me she’d have been a natural at roller derby, but she turns  instead to the dating world. When she meets Zachary in a coffee shop—“bland, invisible in the way certain men in their thirties are”—she pursues him more or less for sport. The consequences, depending on how you look at the matter, are either lucky or disastrous. It’s a sharp, accomplished work.

3.
coverIn a recent book club discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Salon.com, Laura Miller raised the likability issue. Readers have called Franzen’s characters unlikable, and “I confess,” she wrote,

I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naïve and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.

I can’t get behind this statement in its entirety, because the implication is that the practice of dividing people into “nice” or “mean”, or “kind” or “unkind”, or “friendly” or “unfriendly”, or whichever set of labels you wish to use, belongs exclusively to the world of grammar school. We’re all flawed, of course, all of us both nice and mean, but I’m only really interested in spending time with people who manage to remain consistently kind. There was a time in my life when I was impressed by sheer genius, sheer talent, and would seek out people based on this alone, but that was a while ago. At this point I find myself uninterested in spending extended periods of time with interesting people if they aren’t also somewhat nice, if they don’t also comport themselves with some measure of honor.

But as for the rest of it, I hate such remarks too. The point is that these characters aren’t real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn’t like them very much.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.

25 comments:

  1. Yes, it’s ridiculous how much of the debate about Freedom and many other novels centers around the question of whether the author has made the characters likable, or (another angle on the same issue) whether the author likes the characters or looks down on them. Surely with a writer as talented and observant as Franzen, it’s obvious that his characters have too many different dimensions and are seen with too much complexity to fit into neat categories of likability, and it’s equally obvious that his own feelings about them are complicated and sometimes contradictory. Imagine if Virginia Woolf had cut Mrs. Dalloway down to size by making her “adorable.” Or if Dostoevsky had given Raskolnikov some more obviously sympathetic motives for killing the pawnbroker. Or if Shakespeare had decided to leave out all those mind-spinning contradictions in Hamlet that his audience might have found unappealing. We’re in a time where some of our best novelists are giving us remarkably rich and varied characters to explore, and I sometimes worry that our critics are letting our authors down — are failing to be as energetic in their reading as our novelists are in their writing. So thanks for this excellent piece on an always-important topic.

  2. Emily, great piece, and great point. I am reminded of the brief time I spent in an MFA program. During the workshopping of one my short stories, a classmate complained that he didn’t like my characters. “I wouldn’t spend time with these people,” he moped, as if I’d let him down by not introducing him to new friends. I was as baffled by that as I was by a friend’s recent complaint that Freedom was a disappointment because the Berglunds were “assholes.”

  3. A terrific essay, thank you.

    Rick Moody also has a fine essay on the subject, in the craft anthology Rules of Thumb, “To Hell with Likability.” Key quote:

    “People who want only characters who are affirmations of some timid notion of “sympathetic” psychology are actually contemptuous of most of the rest of us. They are the people who secretly hate people, who hate the pocked skin, the stammer, the fits of rage, the compulsive masturbation, though these are pandemic in the real world.”

  4. Thank you so much for this essay. I have a main character that people either love or hate. It made believe in my instincts again. Wonderfully written as well. I am off to search out Bad Marie.

  5. I enjoyed reading this article. I think terminally unlucky characters are harder to endure than socially maladjusted ones.

  6. Brilliant essay! “Unlikable characters are engaging in a way that those too good to be true characters are. This is precisely why I devour Mary Gaitskill’s books and stories…I have found a so-called likable character in any of them yet I keep going back for more. My only conplaint? Now I have even more books to add to my reading list!

  7. A great capture of the issue, Emily. I don’t want to have coffee with characters, I want to be fascinated by them–even as I sometimes must read with awe at their awful decisions. Now, off to get BAD MARIE.

  8. Interesting! And now I’m going to read Bad Marie.

    But I wonder whether the dearth of unpleasant characters might also be due to publishers’ unwillingness to print books that will alienate readers.

  9. I had a similar conversation recently about likability of characters, and wondered aloud if books with likable main characters are now called chick lit. For me, I don’t think it’s that the character’s world is frequently so small that at times part of what I don’t like is that they seem petty.

  10. Thank you for this smart piece of writing. Why, indeed, do so many readers of fiction yearn for characters they can “like,” or “sympathize with” or, worse yet, “relate to”? Virtually every unforgettable character in fiction has been deeply flawed, prone to dissemble, mislead and lie while making bad, even deadly, choices. Sometimes they get punished and sometimes, thankfully, they do not. Fiction is not some ameliorative, 12-step program. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, Martin Amis’s John Self and Keith Talent, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit — you may not want to invite any of them to dinner, but they’re the ones who give us endless pleasure on the page.

  11. Somewhere between “likeable” and “unlikeable” characters lies the more complex, realistic zone of characters who, like real-life people, have both a likeable AND an unlikeable side. Characters you can both love and hate. Or love to hate.

    Personally, I find characters (and people) whom we can both love and hate most rewarding. Olive Kitteridge is one fine example. The challenges – and risks – of writing them, of reading them and of loving them are far outweighed by the resounding gratification of experiencing their depths.

    It’s a shame that today’s books so often portray characters as one, or the other. Likeable, or not. Flat. Dull. Easier to read and to write.

    I posted about this today in the “Backstory Blog” of my combined novel and blog, Veronica’s Nap.

  12. Am reading it right now, will finish it today. Thanks for the rec, and the essay. I do pay attention to who writes blurbs for books. I know that Margot Livesey is extremely generous–to a fault maybe? but I love her novels. Her blurb is good (i.e. whets my interest) and so is Mary Robison’s who is less available I think for back covers of books.

  13. Thank you so much for this. I confess that when I started doing book groups for my book I was completely taken aback at the focus on likability. Sometimes (not in person, but it’s happened in a few reviews) I even am taken to task for writing as though I like my characters myself, when they have done such unlikable things.

    I always point out that you just want to smack Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, among many others. But do you put the book down? No. Do you remember them forever? Yes.

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