This is something I’ve across when I’m editing: authors who are afraid to have their characters be unlikeable or do the wrong thing, because, I think, one of the things we’re always told is that readers have to relate to the main characters. And who is going to relate to an unlikeable character who drives everyone mad?
But here’s the thing, as Steph points out, it’s not reflective of reality that your main character has to be likeable. Granted there are layers of unlikeable for me in a story: a likeable main character who does the wrong thing and spirals out of control or a main character who is an arse but still compelling — think Sherlock Holmes here. God knows, we and Watson have stuck around with him for how long now, proving the point that unlikeable characters have a place.
And come to think of it: Hannibal Lecter. He’s a likeable unlikeable character that springs to mind.
This quote also made me think of Graeme Cameron’s nameless serial killer in Normal — which he’s a pretty likeable guy who happens to fall in love, despite his issue with, you know, killing. He’s compelling even as he kidnaps a woman because Cameron’s showing us how complicated he is.
Gone Girl is another one that comes to mind — yes, I am not fond of the book, but I have read enough reviews and the hype around it can lead me to safely guess the main characters are not particularly likeable… and yet, it’s a runaway hit.
Good Money by JM Green is another book I read with a main character that comes to mind that fits this quote: Stella. She’s plagued by guilt for something she did years ago, and which comes back to haunt her in the book. She lies to her best friend and boss for that matter, and social work clients as well in an effort to keep herself out of jail, even as she does her best for her clients — and that’s compelling reading. I wanted to shake some sense into her as much as I was fascinated by what she was doing.
That right there is what makes a compelling character and a compelling read. Don’t be afraid to make your characters unlikeable.
What other characters spring to mind when you think of this quote?