Unlikeable Characters: Why is likability Even a Question?

Hello friends!! I think about unlikeable characters all the time, and today I am talking about them and sharing my thoughts with you all! As always, I loved to see what you all think.

Often in our group reads, we talked about how likeable the characters are. For some of us, it can make or break the story and affect our enjoyment of the book. It’s always fun to talk about the characters and what we like and don’t like about them and their questionable actions and motivations.

I have been talking a lot about Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. She talks a lot about how women are represented in fiction, and she has given me a lot to think about and question. She inspired me to write this post and ask the question, “Why is likability even a question?”

I find myself drawn to unlikeable characters and love to delve into why they behave the way they do. I often don’t want them to do the right thing or behave in a socially acceptable way. It’s human to want to be liked and accepted, but the characters I love the most are the ones that are not afraid to show their truths and be unliked. I want to see them as humans who do bad things and make bad choices. I want to see the truths they hide, the kind people judge and don’t understand. I want to see all their ugliness, so I understand what makes them ugly. I want that honestly from our characters with their behavior, and I want to see them do questionable things because humans are messy, have faults, make mistakes. I love the characters who are honestly written who speak their minds and not be afraid of being disliked because the truth hurts. So I read to be part of a world like that. Then, of course, there are the characters we love to hate and the psychopaths or sociopaths that we find so fascinating.

Roxane Gay writes, “likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don’t follow this code became unlikable. Critics who criticize the character’s likability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptably” “Are characters more likable when they do the right thing”?

“Should characters be a reflection of us as humans or our better selves”? Maybe that is why some readers read. They like the characters to be socially acceptable and behave in a way that is palatable. We all read for a different reason and get different things out of what we read, and that is why likability is even a question.

What about stories that are centered around the unlikeable character and the messiness of their lives they create and the messiness of life. One of the most unlikeable characters I have encountered was Olive Kitteridge. She was also one of the most honest characters I have encounter. Sure she was mean, bitter and nasty, but she was also compassionate under that nastiness. She saw the truths in people and the world and wasn’t afraid to say how she saw it or speak her mind. It often came out nasty, and she never saw the consequences of that. Was she unlikeable because we can’t see ourselves as being like her? But the side she kept hidden was her compassionate side that she only shared with people she saw struggling, and even then, she came across mean by telling the truth. She didn’t know how to show love and wasn’t shown it either.

I also encounter a character that a few of my friends found likeable that was so unlikeable to me. I despised the character. The author wrote her in such a favourable way, making her into a strong character who made good choices after finding herself in danger. The author made it easy to forget the bigger picture, and what her true motivations were that put her in danger. I wanted to see that character for the unlikeable character that she is not the character who made choices that made her likeable.

What about likability in men? Is it easier to like one over the other? Do we accept unlikeable traits more in men than women? This isn’t something I thought about before, and that lead me to think about gender roles in fiction. That privilege white male role has been played many times. But maybe that is for another post.

Do we see women characters as bitter, angry, selfish, more than we do men? I think I do

What about realistic characters? Do we find them more realistic when they are likeable and do the right thing? Unlikeable characters can seem to lose credibility because we can’t imagine people behaving that badly in real life.

The author needs to make the characters strong enough to carry the plot and create that conflict that has us turning the pages. If characters are always doing the right thing, does it make it interesting enough for us to care?

Thank you for sticking with me and reading through my post! What do you think about the things I said? Is likability a question for you? How do you feel about unlikeable characters?

14 thoughts on “Unlikeable Characters: Why is likability Even a Question?”

  1. Thanks for raising a provocative topic, Brenda💜

    I’ve seen many a review with low ratings because none of the characters were likable. That’s just not a criterion for me to evaluate a story. In fact, some of my most favorite stories lacked a single redeeming character! However, the story has to have that make sense in the plotting and storytelling. Some of the best messages have risen out of these books.

    One thing I need to mention with respect to character likability in the romance genre. We women still seem to give the men a lot of leeway in questionable behavior but hold the women to a higher standard. I think this is a case of conditioning where we are repeating patterns from real life. I think there’s still hope this will lessen but it’s still a trend.

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    1. Thank you for your insight Jonetta! I was wondering about the romance genre. It’s a good point about holding women to a higher standard. I think all that I have been reading made me aware that I do that too. I seem to accept men’s behaviour and question women more. Now that I am aware of that I am going to take more notice of that.

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  2. Brenda! Awesome post! Great questions. I have actually had problems connecting with a book in the past because all the characters were unlikable. However, I’ve also LOVED books that had all unlikable characters too. So it’s not a deal breaker for me if the characters are unlikable — I think it’s just what makes them unlikable and if there was something I found fascinating about their unlikeability. (Does that even make sense? Haha).

    Good point about — do we hold men up to the same standards as far as likeability in our books . I think I am more critical of women (shame on me!). I had never considered that but now that I think about it, I know I tend to me more critical and over analyze the female/mother perspectives.

    Very interesting thoughts and discussion!

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    1. Thank you, Lindsay! That made sense! I think too we hold women to higher stantards becasue we are women and we are tough on oursleves. I am just seeing it’s ok for us to messy and everything is not our fault. I find myself enjoying the stories of messy women. I definelty will be looking at male character’s behavior more now.

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  3. That’s an amazing post and I totally get your motivation behind it. I recently read a novel that’s very popular in general and I did not like most of the characters – period. Reading fantasy however has opened up my ideas about what defines good or bad characters as the lines do blurr and it’s totally subjective. I can only speak for my likes and dislikes and sometimes I have no obvious reasons for my choises.
    From a writer’s perspective, this is a whole different approach, I think. But even so, you can’t make readers like or dislike the characters you create to a failsafe.
    What I do not enjoy are political enuendo’s reflecting our current culture/situation. Though I am open minded, I feel I am way too grounded and in the middle then to run with a politicly/societal driven character’s message….if that makes sense. I actually don’t enjoy it….though in the best of circumstance it’s food for thought. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for joining in on the discussion, Scarlett! It’s interesting too from a writers side of it. I have talked characters alot with authors but now I want to ask them more about creating unlikable charcters. I have to say Robyn Harding creates some of the best ones I have read. I think too that they get a little pressure from editors to write characters that are more appealing to readers.

      I haven’t read too many fantasy but the ones I have have opened my eyes with the depth to the characters. I love to delve into what makes a good or bad charcters and a good page turner. I should read more fantasy but I do find myself getting lost in the elements of fanstasy though. Do you find political enuendo’s reflecting our current culture/situation often in fantasy? I did read one book that I felt had some but it was layered deep into the story and I am not sure I picked up on it really. It was a mix of genre too. Or are you talking all genres?


  4. I find unlikable characters interesting – I want to know their motivation. That said, I wouldn’t want to read a novel (any genre) with a majority of unlikable characters. And then, the pacing had better be spot on.

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    1. I agree there has to some balance with unlikeable and likeable characters. I think some authors can pull it off like you said if the pacing is spot on! Thank you for weighing in Mary!!


  5. I am pleased to see that women are understanding why women are harder on women. We have been conditioned to be. Long ago, some men set it in action that we would hold girls and women to higher standards than boys and men.

    Hence the inappropriately used statement, “boys will be boys” which is often used in reference to boys committing crimes and hurting other people. As if we should just accept it.

    This programs and conditions everybody to be more tolerant to men’s shenanigans. This makes easy living for men, because they are allowed to act up. It makes easier living for men also due to the fact that women are conditioned and trained to act more so that they are easier to deal with for men. It is a win win for the men but not really.
    Double standards and lack of the right standards hurt both men and women. Just look at society. It is a mad world.

    It is definitely conditioning, goes deep and many people may not even realize why they are harder in general on women than men. A first step in making positive change is the fact that women are recognizing that we have been conditioned this way.

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