Brain Candy Sale

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores


Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


In Defense of Unlikable Characters

Literature is full of jerks.Literature is full of jerks. I'm not just talking about colorful villains or callous secondary characters — Iago, say, or David Copperfield's feckless Steerforth — but central characters, point of view characters. Any list of the great fictional and dramatic protagonists of the canon will necessarily include a lot of unlikable, unpleasant, and downright awful people: Oedipus, Medea, Macbeth, Captain Ahab, Humbert Humbert, Tony Soprano. Even the ones who aren't murderers, pedophiles, or obsessives can still be deeply annoying: Achilles sulks in his tent like a sullen teenager; Hamlet spends the entire play dithering; Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse is a meddler and a know-it-all; self-righteous Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch ignores everybody else's advice and makes herself miserable; Clarissa Dalloway is an awful snob. Even pop iconic heroes are no day at the beach. Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant and strikingly virtuous man, but in real life, would you share a flat with a cocaine fiend who practices his target shooting in the parlor?

Obviously, I'm stacking the deck here. There must be protagonists who are both interesting and likable, and it probably says more about my dilettante nihilist view of human nature than it does about the history of literature that I can't think of very many of them at the moment. Huck Finn, I suppose, who is rough but enormously likable. Atticus Finch, I guess, but maybe I'm actually thinking of Gregory Peck. Dickens is full of likable people, or at least good ones, but it sort of proves my point that most of them aren't nearly as memorable as his more corrupt or compromised characters, like Fagin or Miss Havisham or Uriah Heep or Scrooge.

This is all by way of saying that I'm always a little taken aback and (I'll admit it) a little defensive when readers of my books say that they find my protagonists "unlikable," like it's a bad thing. My usual response comes in one of two forms, which are mutually contradictory. The response I usually actually make is, "So what?" After which I proceed to make the same argument I've just made above: Is Macbeth likable? Is Ahab? Is Tony Soprano?Is Macbeth likable? Is Ahab? Is Tony Soprano? (Well, actually, Tony sometimes is, but let's not complicate things.) Literary characters aren't necessarily meant to be role models, I argue, but truthful representations of lifelike people in all their warty glory. Not to mention that bad behavior is usually the hot little engine at the heart of every narrative. As Charles Baxter puts it, hell is story friendly. Who wants to read about Emma Bovary staying faithful to her husband?

My other response, though, which I usually keep to myself, is disappointment. The fact that I have spent more time in the company of my characters than anyone else ever will — novels take a long time to write, or at least, they take me a long time to write — means that, no matter how narcissistic, selfish, or even downright contemptible they turn out to be, I've gotten used to them over the course of a few years and probably see them through the rose-tinted glasses of a parent. In me, anyway, it seems that familiarity breeds a lack of contempt.

Still, when I step back and regard my chief protagonists over the years with a more dispassionate gaze, I suppose I can see what people are talking about. Brian Donovan, the main character of my first novel, The Wild Colonial Boy, was a callow college drop-out who allowed himself to be drawn into an IRA bomb plot, while Paul Trilby, the hero (if that's the word) of one of the novellas in Publish and Perish, is a vainglorious academic who cheats on his wife and then drowns her cat in a bathtub. Nelson Humboldt, another foundering academic in The Lecturer's Tale, starts out as a loser, turns into a power-mad monster, and ends up a loser again. In Kings of Infinite Space, Paul Trilby returns to be haunted by the ghost of the cat he killed and to make a half-assed, last-minute stab at redemption — but even at the end of the book, he's still kind of a jerk.

In contrast to this rogue's gallery, Kevin Quinn, the protagonist of my new novel, Next, is the closest I've ever come to writing a likable, ordinary guy. He's not ambitious, he's not cruel or conniving or manipulative — in fact, if anything, he's a little weak, possibly a little passive aggressive, more inclined to let the wind blow him where it will than to lash out at the world for not recognizing his greatness. The entire novel takes place during a single day of his life — sort of like Mrs. Dalloway, only funnier — and is told entirely from his point of view, so no doubt he will also seem rather selfish and narcissistic. He's a guy at an important crossroads in his life, wandering a strange city (Austin, Texas) where he's come for a job interview, and I took that situation as license for Kevin to reconsider his history up to that point even as he experiences the sights and sounds (and subtropical heat) of Austin.

If readers turn out not to like him much — and I suspect a lot of readers, and maybe even most of them, won't — all I can say in his defense is that, if you were to lift the top of any middle-aged man's skull and peer inside, you probably wouldn't like everything you seeif you were to lift the top of any middle-aged man's skull and peer inside, you probably wouldn't like everything you see. In fact, I strongly suspect you could say the same about pretty much anybody, regardless of race, gender, or place of national origin. The uncensored human consciousness is not necessarily a pretty thing. I don't believe that people are fundamentally decent, but I also don't believe that people are fundamentally evil. People just are, and depending on his background, his mood, his situation, the barometric pressure, the phases of the moon, you name it, the same guy can be tender, heartless, lustful, chivalrous, craven, and noble, all in the same day, and who knows, maybe even at the same moment.

One of my favorite pieces of advice for an artist comes not from another writer, but from that great American actor, Jimmy Cagney, whose own electric persona shone through every part he ever played, but who also played a wide range of characters, including some real assholes. One of the things I admire most about Cagney was that no matter what the movie was, or what character he was playing, from the irrepressibly charming George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy to the irredeemably evil Cody Jarrett in White Heat, he gave it everything he had. Somebody asked him how he did it, and Cagney said, "You plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth." Now, Kevin Quinn isn't quite the Irish charmer Cagney was, so I can't guarantee that you'll like him, or that you'll even like the book. But I can promise you that on every page of this book, with every sentence, with every word, I did my level best to follow Cagney's advice, and look the reader the in eye, and tell the truth.

÷ ÷ ÷

James Hynes is the author of the novels The Lecturer's Tale, The Wild Colonial Boy, the stories Publish and Perish (all New York Times Notable Books of the Year), and the novel Kings of Infinite Space. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Lecturer's Tale
    Used Trade Paper $5.21
  2. The Wild Colonial Boy New Trade Paper $22.00
  3. Publish and Perish: Three Tales of...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  4. Kings of Infinite Space: A Novel New Trade Paper $22.00
  5. Next
    Used Hardcover $6.50

  6. Moby Dick Or, the Whale (98 Edition) Used Trade Paper $4.00
  7. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Folger...
    Used Trade Paper $4.00
  8. Medea (Dover Thrift Editions) Used Trade Paper $0.95
  9. David Copperfield (Vintage Classics)
    New Trade Paper $9.95
  10. The Oedipus Cycle of Sophocles Used Trade Paper $6.95
  11. To Kill a Mockingbird
    Used Mass Market $4.50
  12. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  13. Mrs. Dalloway Used Trade Paper $7.50
  14. Middlemarch (Penguin Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $7.00
  15. Emma (Penguin Classics) Used Trade Paper $5.50
  16. Hamlet (New Folger Library Shakespeare)
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  17. The Iliad
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  18. Lolita
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  19. Madame Bovary (Bantam Classics) Used Mass Market $3.50

James Hynes is the author of Next

3 Responses to "In Defense of Unlikable Characters"

    Marnie Colton March 26th, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Well said! I recently read Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher and found it a fascinating study of three highly unlikeable, one might even say, loathsome characters. John Banville's The Book of Evidence is another example of how an unlikeable, flawed narrator can provide a much more interesting viewpoint than a likeable one.

    Ady April 2nd, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Now see, I don't think a character being despicable or deplorable means they can't be likable. You seem to be conflating "likability" and "niceness," and I don't think that's true, even in real life. A character can be the scum of the earth, but if they are larger than life, if there's something about them that the reader connects with or aspires to or admires even in a twisted way, then it doesn't matter. That character is supremely likable, even if you would never want to be friends with them in real life because you know how awful they are.

    Ava May 12th, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Exactly. You're not supposed to "like" characters. They're not your friends or your neighbors or your son's girlfriend. You're supposed to engage with them. And if you're reading in an engaged way, then well, they are "likeable." A character should be engagable.

Post a comment:

Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at