Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Myth of the Unlikable Character

A few weeks back, I picked up Justine Larbalestier's Liar (which is a fantastic book, by the way, especially if you like psychological thrillers and unreliable narrators) for my monthly book club. We all agreed: the protagonist, Micah, is not an agreeable girl. She doesn't just lie compulsively to her friends and her family, but she lies to us, the readers, too. She's a real knot of a character, pretending to be a boy at school until she's caught, then claiming she was born a hermaphrodite, just to perturb her classmates. She's reclusive and strange.

In other words: not very easy to identify with.

When I peered through the reviews for Liar on Goodreads, I found something surprising. I had liked all of those peculiar things about Micah. She's unique. She's fun to read, because her voice stands out so much from the pack of YA girl heroes.

But Goodreads readers didn't agree. Many called Micah "unlikable," and some didn't even finish reading the book. It's too bad, because Liar, especially in the second half, really scores high on my YA reading list. More on that later.

So I began to think: what's wrong with a character like Micah? I think the best book heroes aren't the perfect ones, but the imperfect ones. Katniss is fantastic because she's courageous and strong, but socially very awkward and closed off.

Perhaps setting the book down is the crux of the issue: what's an "unlikable" character versus an unreadable character?

To be completely honest with you, I've grown immensely bored of the usual suspects in YA fiction—the pretty-and-snarky girl, the outgoing, goofy girl, the manic pixie girl. A while ago, when I tore through Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, I latched onto Cath because she was so dissimilar from me, so new, just like I latched onto Micah from Liar because she was fascinating and outlandish.

I, personally, don't get Cath. I'd never make the decisions that she makes. But in the context of her, Cath makes sense.  She has very good reasons for being antisocial, shy, and reserved. We see through her eyes how difficult the real world is—it's a world where she's been abandoned by her mother and now by her twin sister, versus the comfortable universe she's built inside writing fanfiction.

I still follow along in Cath's story, I still root for her, and I still often want to shake her nervous little head around until she sees how silly she's being. We wouldn't be friends in real life, not for a second, but I still see why she is the way she is and I still enjoy being inside her head.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've hated a protagonist enough to put a book down a time or two. But I come back to the same point as before: there's a difference between an unlikable character, and an unreadable one.

I mean, what would fiction be without our Humbert Humberts and our Micahs and our Prince Zukos? An imperfect hero has things to work on, bridges to cross, gaps to close. Certainly "The Last Airbender" is a serial TV show and not a novel, but the point is still the same: we root for Zuko, even though really, the story paints him as the antagonist—as the "bad guy."

We can have sympathy for someone, even if we don't particularly like them, as long as we understand:

- Where they come from, or,
- Why they are the way they are, and
- Their motivations for the unappealing things they do.

If a character comes across as unlikable, I find it more likely than not they're actually unreadable. Perhaps the voice is grating, or inconsistent. The character's motivations are cloudy. Maybe the writing is just poor. I couldn't stand the progatonist America in Kiera Cass's The Selection because frankly, she's just not written very well. In fact, she's perfect: spirited, beautiful, and kind. And yet somehow, totally unreadable. She'll make a stupid decision that has no foundation, or constantly harp in her head on her tiresome love triangle, and I just couldn't stand reading about her—certainly there was no way I was going to root for her.

It's tricky, though, this difference. I'd guess that a lot of people who didn't like Micah fell into that pot because they never finished her story—her motivations for being a weirdo and a liar are complex and take some time to unspool.

All I'm here to do is to dispel a myth: the Myth of the Unlikable Character. Any character can be liked, no matter how repulsive. It's all a matter of the author's skill in unraveling them.

Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.

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