Unlikeable Characters

I’m not talking about cool bad guys or charming villains, but main characters with annoying traits one after another. Yet the story works. Let’s try to figure out why.

Here’s my example. I was at the gym yesterday and Overboard came on the TV. It’s a fluffy romance with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. The premise is that completely obnoxious, overbearing, snotty rich bitch Joanna on her hubby’s yacht hires poor struggling single dad carpenter Dean to redo her shoe closet — it’s an “emergency.” Dean leers at Joanna, doesn’t ask enough questions to do his job properly to her satisfaction, and is kind of a “whatever” dad who’s getting in trouble with his boys’ school. Neither character is the least bit sympathetic.

Yet I found myself doing extra time on the elliptical so I could keep watching! I don’t even know why — the story itself was totally silly and predictable. I don’t particularly love these two actors. The dialog sucked. But there was something about this somewhat modernized version of Taming of the Shrew that held my interest. It must have been the unlikeable characters. But why?

Someone told me that the female protag in a story I’ve been submitting for critique isn’t very likeable, which I understand. I fling her at the reader on page one with a raft of problems and she’s a bit whiny about them, plus trying to quit smoking, which is making her crabby. But my idea was that this made her more relatable to the (female) reader, and then as the story progresses she tackles her problems one by one and we witness her character growth/change. Of course the reader has to want to keep reading, not get annoyed/bored.

But the person who told me this was a man and men are not predisposed to enjoy romance novels. I think that when a woman starts one, she is predisposed to relate to the female protag, or else she would have picked up another genre of book. I know I will give a romance heroine and storyline the BotD for a while before giving up on the novel. You?

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10 responses to “Unlikeable Characters

  1. There is an explanation based on psychological studies that might apply to this movie that goes like this: You like people MORE if they start out being unlikable but slowly become likable, or if they disagree with you at first, but slowly begin to agree with you. You like these people more, eventually, than if they started out exactly how you like people.
    The other explanation, the one I think is correct, is that there is a certain unexplainable magnetism and charisma to these actors. They are like “those” kids you went to high school with who were totally obnoxious yet for some reason they were popular.
    But I think the second explanation would be problematic to apply to a novel, since it would be difficult to write charisma into a character, as, the best I can tell, charisma has more to do with body language and pheromones and very subtle (or not so subtle) social/sexual cues.
    As always, I could be wrong.

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  2. “Overboard” works because both characters improve.

    Most female protags annoy me, because they’re written with all these EMOTIONS. Which makes them seem so damned neurotic. Like we females are always too agitated to think. The male equivalent does nothing but think and to stop himself from getting neurotic, he goes to a bar and gets wasted or laid or both. (Lucky guy. Ha!) I think I’d like your protag, Paula. To learn from your mistakes is strength; I like reading about strong women. Heck, strong men, too. You know, people who can grow and grow up.

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  3. IDK bout the romance novel sitch, but I totally relate to your Overboard experience – it sucks me in every time I happen across it if channel surfing (The Goonies, O Brother Where Art Thou, and any Mel Brooks film do the same). It’s one of my favorites and I think, all things considered, is a good screwball comedy in the tradition of the greats like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday. How can you not like a film with lines like, “I was prepared to sue you. I don’t know who I am, but I’m sure I have a lawyer” and “These gnats keep landing on my wet nail polish. I guess I’m supposed to walk around with their little corpses stuck to my fingers, is that it?”

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  4. Overboard is one of my most favorite movies. I’ve watched it over and over and over. It makes me laugh, and it is just so silly, and I’ve always loved Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. I think it’s a familiar, grew up with them kind of thing, I don’t know. But watching her change from a spoiled, dissatisfied, rich bitch to a caring, strong woman is appealing to me.

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  5. I think there’s a big difference between flawed and unlikeable. Flawed = relatable = good. Example: Bridget Jones. Unlikeable = annoying = bad. Example: Scarlet O’Hara. The flaws have to be funny (Bridget in real life would be super annoying, but her flaws are presented in a funny way), or cute, or mild enough that they don’t keep you from wishing the person well (I don’t care whether Scarlet overcomes her problems because she’s an asshole). Someone has to have a problem in order for you to root for them, but it can’t be the kind of problem that keeps you from rooting for them. Tough balance.

    I LOVE Overboard. It’s on that list of movies that show up on cable that I will ALWAYS watch. You’re right, both are jerks (although she becomes not a jerk later), but the story benefits from being so unbelievable that you don’t feel obligated to judge them as real people, so it’s okay if they’re jerks as long as they’re entertaining. And their chemistry is great.

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  6. Forgot to say, wrt starting out with someone unlikeable so you can show them change, look at the classic example: Scrooge is a jerk, but he’s funny (unintentionally, but still) and smart and just generally fun to read about. So you care about his journey. People get invested in jerks as long as they’re entertaining jerks. Look at how much they love Hannibal Lecter. I just think it’s a much tougher sell – you have to make that character compelling enough to make people like them in spite of. Much easier to give them a character they can like because of.

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  7. Roy: there is definitely a magnetism between those two, so perhaps that is the explanation (or a big part of it).

    Keera: thx! I refuse to write “perfect” heroines cuz they make me gag.

    AJ: I really want to watch the rest of it.

    O’Tim: that gnat line was fantastic!!

    Teacake: yep, GWTW was difficult to get through, maybe because of that. Glad to hear Overboard comes up a lot cuz I wanna see the rest!

    Agree that fun jerks are no problem to read. And even though I generally prefer books to movies I must say that the film Hannibal was much more fun than the novel’s. Well, they totally changed him, didn’t they? It’s been 30 years since I read Red Dragon. My friend Kathy gave me that book as a birthday present… and I was all wtf? But I couldn’t put it down.

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  8. What Teacake said.

    I’m watching (Netflix) a delightful shortlived series, Wonderfalls, that has an unlikeable heroine. Was watching with my daughter, who is wonderful but sooooo bristly, and she said “I don’t like that character. She’s too cranky.” Later, she said “Is this about me or WHAT?!” I wasn’t gonna tell her I saw her in the character, who you slowly come to like, through a crack in the armor here and then one there. But I don’t mind that she got it, finally.

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  9. Mary Shannon on “In Plain Sight” is unlikeable and totally emotional in a non-traditional way. She is a midern day Beatrice. Right? Taming of the Shrew?

    Yet she’s thoroughly likeable and you want to see her grow, even while applauding her brutal, very negative “honesty”

    well, I do, anyway.

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  10. One of the few movies I ever paid to see twice, and I watch it on TV when it is on. Don’t know why. Something must have worked.

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