Unlikable Characters: The Forgotten Art of Imperfection

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “unlikable” main characters—mostly because I tend to write them. When I first set out on this writing journey in 2011, I knew I wanted to write realistic, interesting characters. My stories were going to be character driven, rather than propelled by plot. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life studying character construction, mostly by absorbing books, TV shows, and movies, taking mental notes of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve always been fascinated by unique characters with very human faults. I especially like the ones who try to do the right thing, or could, but they usually get in their own way.

Some of my absolute favorite characters like this are Suzanne Collins’s Katniss, Joss Whedon’s Faith, Stephen King’s Roland, Gillian Flynn’s Nick, and of course George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow. These are all people with demons. They’re not villains per se, but they’re not the heroes we’ve become used to. They’re not necessarily antiheroes, either. Characters like them stand out in deep contrast to the well liked and beloved Buffys and Hermiones of the world. Unlikable characters are flawed and don’t always do the right thing. They earn nicknames like “bitch” and “whiny” from audiences.

But what fans of their respective franchises might be forgetting is their inner strength. These characters take a pummeling yet they keep getting back up. They’re the black sheep underdogs of the entertainment world. The flaws that weaken them only highlight their tenacity and (often hidden) virtues.

I think, in the lit world especially, we’ve gotten too used to alpha males and darling heroines. There’s no fun in a character who always says and does the right thing. There’s no room for growth. They’re already perfect—the epitome of the dreaded fan fiction Mary Sue: the character who is so pretty/handsome and completely idealized.

Flaws are essential for good characters. A well-rounded character with multiple facets is always compelling—especially as they grow and change throughout the story. Even sweet Rory makes a series of bad choices as Gilmore Girls progresses. She learns from her mistakes, which only makes her stronger and more interesting.

A huge part of my brand is writing very real characters dealing with social issues. My characters are stressed out, raising siblings and juggling mental illness. They’re feisty and trying to overcome substance abuse while chasing their dreams. They stumble on their words and subconsciously judge people in the world around them. They’re spoiled and arrogant, but they love hard. They fight for what they believe in. They’re willing to break out of their comfort zones and go against the grain. The belles and beaus that I portray represent actual people, not cardboard cutouts.

There is so much beauty in imperfection. I write to put these blooming personalities on display because we ourselves are flawed. It’s important for us to see ourselves represented in art, to know that we’re not alone.

The characters in my stories are mirrors for the real life badass belles and beaus who chose different paths. If you dig that, I’m your girl. (And you can totally get one of my books for free right now by signing up for my newsletter.)

Viva la underdogs.

Who’s your favorite “unlikable” character? Tell me in the comments below!

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Elizabeth Barone

Elizabeth Barone is an American novelist who writes contemporary romance and suspense starring strong belles who chose a different path. Her debut novel Sade on the Wall was a quarterfinalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. She is the author of the South of Forever series and several other books. When not writing, Elizabeth is very busy getting her latest fix of Yankee Candle, spicy Doritos chips, or whatever TV show she’s currently binging. Elizabeth lives in northwestern Connecticut with her husband, a feisty little cat, and too many books.

4 thoughts on “Unlikable Characters: The Forgotten Art of Imperfection”

  1. Katniss Everdeen is far and away my favorite difficult character.

    I defend Katniss and/or THG series online (forums, comments section, etc) on a regular basis. Nobody bashes my girl Katniss and gets away with it.

  2. That’s why people love antiheroes. In the original Star Wars, Luke was the hero, but Han stole the show. Same with Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The flawed, sometimes crazy antihero has the far more interesting journey.

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