Unlikeable Characters

Claire Gallagher

Claire Gallagher | March 11, 2024

Unlikeable Characters


Save the Cat?

My three psychological novels have unlikeable point-of-view characters. Without balance, they can appear two-dimensional – and I’ve discovered that achieving that balance is rather tricky! What do I mean by balance? I suppose I’m talking in terms of the reader’s perception. Is the character’s dark side countered by a bit of light, or a reason to root for them?

It’s unusual to find main characters who are ‘all bad’. Yes, the antagonist may be (but even then, they can come across as hammy villains if not done carefully! Think of Hannibal Lecter – doesn’t Thomas Harris make a dark part of you connect with the cannibal?), but an ‘all bad’ protagonist? I can only think of a few, and even then it may be argued that there are nuances.

One is a classic: Wuthering Heights. Yes, the story is told from the perspective of an outsider, but Cathy and Heathcliff are the true stars of the story. The first time I read this novel, I could not understand why people love it so much. The ill-fated lovers had almost no redeeming qualities. Their obsessive and tempestuous relationship, the love-hate of it, and their treatment of others bamboozled me. But I was young then, only a teen. A few years later, I decided to give it another chance. I’ve read it several times since. Notice that I said almost no redeeming qualities. I realised that their love is their redeeming feature – their all-consuming passion for each other, reflected in the wildness of the Yorkshire moors.

The other book is contemporary: How to Kill Your Family. This novel is from the perspective of Grace, a young woman seeking revenge for her rich father’s treatment of her abandoned mother. Grace vows to kill his entire family, one-by-one. A caveat to my comments is that I only listened to the abridged version of this on BBC Sounds, so I may have missed subtleties in the author’s portrayal of Grace’s mindset, but from what I heard this character has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Despite her motivation, I felt no sympathy. Most people in her situation would not turn murderous! Morbid curiosity kept me listening to the end – which was disturbingly satisfying.

Of the two books, Wuthering Heights is the one I would read again. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s read both and has their own opinion about how character likeability influenced their enjoyment.


Final Thoughts

Do you enjoy books which have unlikeable main characters?

Which books can you think of which fit this description?

Does the character ‘save the cat’ at any point?

How do you relate to unlikeable characters?


*The title refers to Blake Snyder’s theory that we can make an audience root for an unlikeable character by having them metaphorically save a cat early in a story, i.e. perform a redeeming action.

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