Last month I mentioned that I'm writing an unlikable narrator. A number of blog readers expressed interest in this topic, so I've been trying to organize some further thoughts on it. It's a tricky subject to figure out, though.
I have read and enjoyed plenty of books with main characters I didn't like. There's the category of protagonist who makes your skin crawl -- the famous example is Humbert Humbert in LOLITA, as Henri reminded me. I recall that while Humbert is despicable, he's also far more pathetic than evil, and that's one of the reasons the story works as well as it does. It's a good tactic for a writer to humanize unlikable characters (and every other kind of character, too), because even if their weaknesses don't make readers like them more, it does build a certain sympathy.
Then there are characters you love to hate. In my recent review of BEAT THE REAPER, I guess I didn't mention this, but the narrator is kind of jerk. His morals are questionable, and he's not that nice to the people in his life. I might not want to hang out with him, but I still found him awesome to read about because he was so funny and competent. So that's another factor: An audience is generally willing to be impressed by characters, even when they're unlikable on a personal level.
Katje brought up the fantastic television series BREAKING BAD, which capitalizes on the "love to hate" element (pun intended). Walter White is a brilliant scientist and problem-solver who does a lot of horrible things. At this point in the series, viewers mostly can't stand him, but that hasn't made the show any worse. We still want to find out what Walt is going to do next and how he's going to overcome the latest obstacle. But it is important that Walt started out as a much more sympathetic character who evolved over many seasons -- the show wouldn't work if it started with the Walt of season 5.
By contrast, in the TV series MAD MEN, we find out right away that the main character, Don Draper, isn't a very nice guy. (I should blog more about all the TV I watch, because a lot of it has good writing lessons.) Don's a brilliant ad man, but he's arrogant about it, and he's a bad husband. He's a character I love to hate, but honestly, I don't really hate him. Don is human, flawed, and complicated, as are all the characters in the show, and the mix of good and bad traits works together to create people I want to watch more of, even when I'm not thrilled with their actions.
I guess the main thing that makes an unlikable character work must be the complexity. Because I've certainly read and watched stories with characters who I didn't like and also didn't care about following any longer. Once the audience stops caring, it's all over, so that's what I want to avoid as a writer.
When unlikable characters didn't work for me, often the problem is the character has only one unlikable trait, and that's it. I don't want to read about a greedy character motivated by greed who greedily lays off all the poor workers and then goes home to bask in the luxuries acquired through greed. If that's all that's going on, it's boring. But if the character is struggling with the memory of childhood bullying or caring for a sick parent or in the middle of a divorce from an even more greedy spouse, maybe you'd have something there.
I'm trying to write an unlikable character who readers will still care about following because he's a complex human with good traits as well as bad. He's a loving father, deeply devoted to the welfare of his family (Walter White's major redeeming feature), but he's also a bad husband (like Don Draper). I had intended to make him more sympathetic during this revision, and I think I've successfully made it clearer that the love for his family is genuine, but I also keep writing scenes in which he behaves worse than in the last draft. This bad behavior continues to interest me because the character has no idea what a jerk he is. He is so good at rationalizing that he always believes he's doing the right thing. It's awful, but it's intriguing. I hope readers will think so, too.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Hilary Smith explains common problems with story conflicts: "[I've] noticed a peculiar phenomenon: manuscripts with loads of conflict that are nevertheless deadly boring.... It turns out these writers had misplaced their conflict in various ways. It's like keeping gasoline in the trunk of your car instead of putting it in the tank. Sure, you have gas, but it's not doing you any good. Gas is only useful if it's in the tank--and conflict sort of works the same way."