Thursday, August 06, 2020

Dislikable Characters

What does it take to turn you off fictional characters so thoroughly you don't want to read about them? Even if I dislike some aspects of a protagonist, that's not necessarily a downcheck for the story as a whole if it engages me otherwise. Scarlett O'Hara is far from a nice person, yet I sympathize with her despite her flaws and have reread GONE WITH THE WIND many times. Any character who constantly and indiscriminately peppers his or her conversation with words formerly called "unprintable" (as opposed to using them for emphasis when the situation justifies them) repels me. I detest this habit in Stephen King's early novels, but I find those works so fascinating in general that I put up with the annoyance.

I just finished reading a well-written, emotionally credible ghost story in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. The protagonist, a middle-aged divorced man, sees not only the ghosts of his parents but "wraiths of the living" in the form of apparitions of his ex-wife and their son. The man's unhappiness and his increasing estrangement from the people around him make the story painfully depressing to read, although still effective in its way. The character loses my sympathy, however, when he collects his mother's personal effects from the nursing home and decides to throw away the family photograph.

One of my favorite mystery authors, best known for her dog-themed mysteries, also collaborated on a food-themed detective series. I was so disappointed in the first novel that I never gave the sequels a chance. Two reasons: The protagonist, a young, single woman, inherits money from a relative on condition that she go to graduate school. Instead of rejoicing in the opportunity, she chooses a major, not on the basis of interest—she has no apparent interest in furthering her education in any field—but on the principle of taking the easiest subject she can find in order to get the money. Also, while preparing for a first date with a man she hasn't even met yet, she seriously considers having sex with him. That strikes me as so dumb I couldn't believe in the character, much less like her. Those personal aversions of mine might not even register on the mental radar of a different reader.

Characters who display consistently negative reactions to situations and people turn me off. If the viewpoint character constantly spouts snarky insults, whether aloud or through internal monologue, the writer may intend for the reader to admire her clever wit and sympathize with her grievances. I react, instead, by assuming that if the character dislikes or disdains everybody and everything, there's something wrong with him or her, not with the other people. I once read a horror story about which I recall very little except that it began with the middle-aged, male protagonist lingering over late-night TV to avoid sex with his wife, who had recently developed a renewed zest for it. That glimpse into his mind was enough to make me loathe the character.

I don't mind reading a short story or possibly a novella focused on an unlikable protagonist, if the work has other virtues to hold my attention. I refuse to endure a whole book with such a character, though, unless the story exerts an irresistible fascination for some other reason. For instance, a certain bestselling series about a solitary, embittered man swept into an epic fantasy realm was a very hard sell for me; the protagonist struck me as so unpleasant and depressing that only the strength of the worldbuilding prevented me from giving up on him.

For me to willingly spend an entire novel, trilogy, or series in the mind of a person I would avoid in real life, the work needs to have other enthralling qualities to make up for the unpleasantness. Where do you draw the line with unlikable characters?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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