When we talk about Unlikable Characters, we tend to conflate truly abhorrent behavior that violates societal norms and decision making that we don’t like. When I think of Unlikable Characters, my mind immediately goes to characters who are violent or deceitful or cruel and that behavior seems to be justified within the narrative. Walter White, Frank Underwood (or really almost all of the characters on House of Cards, if I’m being honest), Professor Snape, Draco Malfoy, President Snow, Gale Hawthorne, etc. are all characters that I would say are Unlikable Characters, and most of them are male, and most of them have been very well received by audiences. And while I wouldn’t want to be friends with any of those characters, I think their stories are compelling and good and worth reading about. Their likability does not hinder my ability to enjoy the source material.
However, Goodreads and other Book People seem to use Unlikable Character to mean that a character, usually a young lady protagonist, doesn’t behave the way that the reader would in any given situation. Like, a character who lies to her parents or doesn’t think for herself enough. Or a character who skips school or a character who spends too much time doing homework. There’s a whole list of conflicting characteristics here. But there are two problems with labeling all of these girls as Unlikable, and I think the second reason gets left out of a lot of conversations about these types of books. The first problem is that good books with good writing are unfairly criticized as being bad books, when in reality it could just be that the book does not perfectly fit a reader’s very specific tastes. But the second problem is that these characters are realistic and nuanced and reflect the behavior of actual girls and calling these characters Unlikable is the equivalent of saying that Actual Girls Who Don’t Have Everything Figured Out Yet are bad people.
During the last round of Reblog Book Club, we read The Impossible Knife of Memory, and almost everyone posting in the tag called Hayley an Unlikable Character. When I first heard that we would be reading a Laurie Halse Anderson book about mental illness and substance abuse, I was so excited to get into nuanced discussions about the realities of mental illness and how it affects childhood development, but the internet really let me down. I saw a lot of myself in Hayley. I understood all of her reasoning and thought processes, and it was very cathartic to see that part of my past reflected in a book. I didn’t know it while I was living it, but everything I felt in high school and everything that Hayley feels in the book are textbook reactions to living with someone who uses substances to self-medicate. Nothing about the way the story is constructed is meant to show that Hayley is an awful person who deserves to be miserable, but that was the attitude I was seeing over and over in the discussions. So many people who were posting about the book said Hayley was unmotivated, whiny, too present to think about her future, stubborn, and all around too Unlikable to enjoy the book. I heard that I was not a person who deserved friends or a nice family or a boyfriend or a hopeful future or a happy ending. The message we send when we describe young lady protagonists as Unlikable is that real girls who are similar to these characters are Unlikable too.
Male protagonists are not treated the same way by audiences. They just aren’t. Literary dude-bros can have the same characteristics as Unlikable Female Characters, but readers react positively to them. Holden Caulfield is whiny and obnoxious and a trouble maker, but Catcher in the Rye is still respected in almost every literary circle. Salinger made a career out of writing about whiny, pretentious young adults. Hamlet is a huge self-absorbed, indecisive douchebag, but it’s widely accepted that the play permanently changed the way literature is written. I love-love-love the men in Junot Diaz’s books, but I don’t think anyone would say that they’re particularly good people. I certainly wouldn’t want to date Yunior or Oscar. I think The Spectacular Now is the best recent-ish YA example of this phenomenon. The book is very dark, and Sutter is definitely an alcoholic, and his behavior is dangerous, but he’s an incredibly charming character, and the book seems to be pretty well-received on Goodreads, and there was enough critical and commercial support for the story that a movie adaptation was produced.
Maybe my philosophy on narratives is wrong, but I thought stories were meant to teach us how to sympathize when we don’t have the experience to empathize. I don’t think that it’s important to agree with every decision a character makes, but I think there needs to be a distinction between a really Unlikable Character (like, say, murderers) and normal girls. Is that character really Unlikable? Why do you think that the character is Unlikable? Is there an indefinable quality that rubs you the wrong way? Just because you and a character don’t mesh, that doesn’t mean that character is Unlikable, and maybe it would be better to move on to the next book without prioritizing your opinion over the self-esteem of real girls who identify with the character you hate for no real reason.