Unlikeable Characters (Or: I Love This Story But I Want To Punch The Protagonist In The Face)

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about good and bad characterization. Specifically, unlikeable characters and their viability in narratives, and the fine line between constructive criticism and “I just really hate that guy and it’s coloring everything else.”

About a month ago as I write this, I had this debate with Josh Neff of goblin cartoons regarding Lev Grossman‘s Magicians trilogy. I have the first two volumes on my nook, and had just preordered the third in hardback, because all of the first run were promised to come signed. I have it, now, by the way, and it’s lovely. I only have two signed books, this and John Green‘s The Fault in our Stars which ran a similar promotion. I have long nursed an impulse to start a proper book collection, first editions and signed copies, and this is all I have so far managed to make of it. Josh had said that he was never able to understand the hoopla surrounding the books, because the characters all seemed like “selfish assholes who found magic and the world boring.”

The interesting thing is that, despite my love for the trilogy, I don’t completely disagree. The main characters are selfish, academically elitist and socially privileged, looking down on all who do not share their cognitive ability and drive for academic excellence as though they are somehow less worthy. And yes, in the first book, the protagonist Quentin is forced to reconcile the fact that nontraditional or informal magic, despite his initial scorn, equally valid and altogether valuable. It’s a neat parallel to the literary world, where upscale, highly educated literary fiction holds itself apart from the genre fiction, independent publications and fanfiction scribbled by the masses. It works, except that the mechanism for this revelation, Julia, a sometime love interest, is herself an elitist hipster asshole; having been rejected from the magical academia she believed was hers rightfully, she turns her scorn on the whole establishment and everyone who comes from it or benefits from it.

See, thing is, I don’t really like Quentin all that much as a person, and I outright despised Julia. For all that Magicians is a love story to escapist fantasy literature, Quentin hides in it like an ostrich under sand, refusing to grow up and deal with the real world. It’s just his luck that it turns out to actually be real. And yeah, the text tries to make Julia out to be some kind of warrior-victim, subjugated by the unfair elitist system and fighting against it like the worldy rebel she is, but I just don’t buy it. She leveraged Quentin’s feelings against him and his latent guilt for her having been rejected from Brakebills (and becoming goth and choosing to leave home in order to live in a ramshackle commune with a bunch of hedge witches instead of moving on with her life?) and generally acted like the universe owed her something for having suffered through situations she could easily have chosen not to participate in.

So no, I don’t like the characters, exactly (well, some of Quentin’s Brakebills friends), but I do like the story. Maybe it’s that academic elitism is a flaw I can relate to. I’m great at being elitist. I try not to do it, but it’s a character flaw I am well enough acquainted with that I can love a story in spite of it being pervasive throughout the text. So despite, or perhaps because of Quentin’s inherent childishness, I continue to read and enjoy the story as whole.

A similar situation: I have a short story in progress, a “Ghost Town” story related toDeath Girl, which remains incomplete because I’m struggling with the ending. Part of it is my own fault: The protagonist, Caedon, isn’t exactly a self-starter, so it requires quite a push to get him to solve his own problems, or even acknowledge all of them. A new writing friend had offered to take a look and offer her advice. It having languished for a good month on my hard drive, I saw nothing to lose by showing her. She gave me a lot of valuable feedback for all I griped and moaned about how I’m worthless as a writer and should give up forever. (There are a lot of things I considered evident through context clues, which apparently didn’t come across. Also what didn’t come across: that it was related to other stories and building upon things that had previously been introduced. Oops.)

An interesting and arguably unproductive result of this whole process was that my friend absolutely despised Caedon. She said, “I just can’t stand that he’s so whatever about everything. I hate people like that. But there are people like that in the world, so it may be valuable to represent them. I just can’t stand it.” And he is very “whatever.” It’s an apt description. He’s not exactly shooting for the moon with his aspirations. But I like him anyway. I like chill people, and he’s fairly easygoing for all he doesn’t want to confront the problems he caused himself. So on one hand I need to get second opinions from people who don’t take unmotivated people as a very aggravating pet peeve. (On another, I just need to finish the thing.)

It makes me wonder, though. I don’t think I’ve ever written a truly polarizing character. Is this a good thing? Is the protagonist being unmotivated an Achilles Heel for a story? Why? In a way, I want to stand by him and let people hate the story for being about him. Certainly characters have ruined stories for me. I borrowed The Stars My Destination from scifiwench about a thousand years ago (I swear I will return it) and never finished it, because I found the main character to be so utterly repulsive that turning another page was agonizing. But I kind of hate Quentin a little, and own all three volumes of The Magicians Trilogy. So what gives?

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *