Discussions

Trope Discussion #5: The Unlikable Main Character

“Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again.”

First line in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I’m back with another entry to my series of posts where I discuss and analyze specific tropes in books, and this time I felt inspired to talk about one of my all-time favorites: The unlikable main character. It’s a trope that can be handled in a number of different ways so I’ll try to explore those ways and give some examples of when I think the trope works and when it doesn’t.

As always, I’ll define what I mean when I say “unlikable character”, although a lot of it is self-explanatory. It could seem that it’s rather subjective whether a character is likable or not but the focal point here is the author’s intention. That intention can be made clear through tone but also through what kind of flaws the character is given. All characters will have flaws (if they don’t, they’re badly written) but the unlikable character will have irredeemable flaws such as sadism or misogyny. The character doesn’t go through development that will make their flaws excusable or endearing. Basically, the flaws cannot be framed as positive traits.

It’s not unusual for books to include this type of character but most often they play minor roles or are outright villains. I’m going to talk about the books where this character is in the leading role and we spend most of the book inside their heads. Because why do we (read: I) like that? What is so fascinating about reading about terrible people?
I think a large part of my own interest comes from the novelty of it. While reading about characters you can identify with has its merits and I definitely enjoy that as well, reading about characters who are the complete opposite (hopefully) feels new and exciting. Not all readers enjoy this and like to stick to the familiar which explains why the trope isn’t universally liked. But for readers who do enjoy it, it can be very eye-opening and teach us something about people who are different from us. It’s about learning that the people you surround yourself with and obviously like don’t represent humanity as a whole. There are people outside of your little bubble who have an impact on the world and it’s important to understand them too. This is also the reason it’s very hard to write such a character. They have to be realistic. You have to make the reader believe that even though they’ve never met such a person before they are still very real.
A couple of books I thought managed this really well are A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. The latter explores a very interesting scenario by being a prequel. Collins has already made you hate President Snow, this looming authoritative figure who kills children for sport in The Hunger Games. But can she then make him real? Can we understand how he became this person by spending 500 pages in his head? It’s not about excusing his actions or finding pity for him. It’s about learning how he became a man who could do such things because such people don’t only exist in dystopian fiction.

Another way to handle the trope is to make the reader unaware that they are reading about an unlikable character. They might suspect it but the book is about slowly unveiling these irredeemable flaws I talked about, or maybe not revealing it until the very end. I’ll avoid examples for this for the sake of spoilers but I really love books that take this approach. The appeal of it is of course the mystery element. You’re trying to figure this character out but you can’t really pin them down because sometimes you agree with them and sometimes you definitely don’t. It speaks to the complexity of us as human beings and I like how it enforces the idea that anyone could be this type of person. It’s not only foreign leaders or people with too much power. They are also ordinary people that might not be that different from you and me. There’s also something about the way authors can make us identify with these characters early in the book that I find really fascinating. Doesn’t it say something about how we all have the potential to be this type of person? Our choices are just what makes us different.

When looking for books to mention in this post, I was reminded of Vicious by V. E. Schwab and had to consider whether it was an example of unlikable main characters or it was actually a failed attempt at the trope. I’m going into mild spoiler territory here but we follow two characters, Victor and Eli, and yes, there aren’t exactly a lot of rainbows and sunshine about their personalities. I’ll actually say that Eli is written so much as the antagonist that I’m not sure he fits the particular trope I’m talking about. There’s still Victor, though, whom I believe was meant to be an unlikable character. I just don’t think he is.
I’m trying to judge Schwab’s intention with the character and a big hint is the series title: Villians. Plural. Combine that with the way Victor is introduced which is that he is arrogant and doesn’t care about his academic peers because he’s smarter than them. In a basic definition of the word, yes, he is unlikable, but that’s just not all that is required for this trope if you ask me. It also gets worse as the book goes on because Victor doesn’t act out these negative traits but actually shows himself as a good person, albeit a flawed one. The book fell kind of flat for me since it was pitched as following two friends who are ruled by ambition and jealousy instead of morals. I don’t think that’s what the book is. A book I think did something similar much more effectively is These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever. It also follows two friends but there’s also a difference in how “bad” the characters are, and Nemerever allows us to solely follow the most unlikable one of them. It gives a different perspective than Vicious and that makes it a much more effective execution of the trope.

The final case is want to talk about is another one I don’t like because I’d argue it isn’t actually the unlikable main character trope. Here I mean the situation where an author has unintentionally made their main character unlikable and therefore doesn’t frame their flaws appropriately or explore them in depth. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of this but I’m going to mention Kvothe from Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss and Parisa from The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake. Kvothe is a bit of a special case in many ways but especially because Rothfuss’s intention with him is somewhat unclear because we don’t have the ending yet. But I hate him so I’m including him.
The problem with Kvothe is that he is too perfect and the minor flaws of his that the books deal with are actually only there to make him seem even more perfect. Only is that not interesting, but it ignores his actual flaws which are extreme arrogance and selfishness along with a tendency to manipulate people around him. These traits in a main character don’t automatically make me hate a book but it is frustrating to see other characters not act appropriately toward such a person. Everybody loves Kvothe which tells me that Rothfuss didn’t give him these traits intentionally so there’s never going to be any development or exploration of those parts of his character.
In Parisa’s case, I do think there’s an intention behind Olivie Blake’s decision to give Parisa her flaws of arrogance and inconsideration. I also think Parisa is meant to be unlikable but I think Blake believed she was doing it “in a cool way”, a way that would actually have readers like Parisa because of her no-bullshit attitude. Again, this means we’re not going to have Blake explore those flaws or have any development of Parisa’s character because she is already perfect.

That’s all I have for now but I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments so tell me your opinions. Do you like this trope? Do you have other examples of it beyond the ones I mention? What is your take on the Vicious situation if you’ve read it?

8 thoughts on “Trope Discussion #5: The Unlikable Main Character

  1. Brace yourself for a truly monstrous comment… πŸ™ƒπŸ˜… However, since I, too, adore reading about unlikeable protagonists and have had quite a few heated discussions with friends of mine who don’t – mostly in response to The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which everyone I know in real life seems to hate 😭 – I love that you chose to feature this trope in your series! I just have so much to say!

    Your mindset on what makes unlikeable main characters great pretty much completely mirrors mine. The novelty and real-world relevance of such a perspective almost never fails to intrigue me, but I think it’s the questioning of the character’s motives that ultimately makes me love these kinds of books so much. It’s the unlikable protagonists who are somehow still relatable and whose thought process make a twisted kind of sense that get to me, because yeah, sometimes it really makes me start questioning my own morals. Like, if I had grown up under these characters’ circumstances, would I have made the same choices they had? If I can relate to some of the darker thoughts they’re having, does it make me an inherently horrible person, too? How far removed are we from actually committing terrible crimes and what does it take to actually push someone over the edge? I don’t know why I enjoy spending my free time philosophizing about disturbing ethical questions, but somehow, I do πŸ˜‚ And these kinds of books are great if you need something to get you thinking! (Particularly if part of the thinking involves figuring out if you can trust a narrator because that makes the whole thing even more complicated and fun! πŸ€—)

    In fact, the only book with the unlikeable protagonist trope that I can actively remember ever disliking is The People in the Trees πŸ˜… But I think in that case, it wasn’t actually the trope that bothered me – The way that was executed actually got me thinking for months! – but the fact that we had to stay in Norton’s head for hundreds of pages and listen to his boring jungle descriptions. I felt like the novel was so fluffed up with clues to his despicableness that I eventually became bored and started to focus more on hating Norton rather than analyzing whether I should I hate him, if that makes any sense…

    And I also kind of agree with you on Villains – in fact, Victor’s unlikeableness turning out to be so questionable is probably what made this series flop for me in the end. I loved Vicious due to its university plotline, where we did actually see two friends going down a very dark and creepy path in the hopes of gaining power, but the “now” timeline made me lose a lot of interest precisely because so much of that moral grayness was lost. I wanted both Victor and Eli to continue being power hungry and actually make bad choices! 😫 And, when reading Vicious, I still hoped that we would maybe get more of that and loved it because of that promise, I guess. Which then successfully turned Vengeful into one of my most disappointing sequels ever when it didn’t deliver on anything 😑

    I don’t see eye to eye with you on Kvothe, though 😜 At least not fully. I do agree that we can’t fully judge Rothfuss’s intentions until we get an ending (FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, HOW MUCH LONGER IS IT GOING TO TAKE THAT MAN???), but when I read the Kingkiller Chronicle, I always felt like it was very clear that Kvothe was not supposed to be likeable. Part of what makes the story so fascinating to me is precisely that he is extremely arrogant, misogynistic, and self-absorbed and that everyone seems to love him – because it’s KVOTHE telling us the story. Of course I am not going to trust everything he says word for word! The fact that Kvothe’s arrogance is a blatantly obvious elephant in the room has me extremely intrigued as to WHY he is telling us the story this way. Is it because he is still a self-absorbed prick, blind to the arrogance of his ways and how people truly saw him, even if his pride eventually led to a fall (which I’m also very curious about)? Or is he purposefully showing himself in this critical, unapologetic way that might even be a tad exaggerated because he hated who he was when he was younger and maybe still doesn’t see himself as a good person? Maybe Kvothe just wants to make sure that people who end up reading the Chronicler’s tale will end up hating him because that’s how he also feels about himself? Of course, the third option is still that Rothfuss simply fucked up at writing Kvothe unreliablely and actually thinks he’s awesome, but if that’s the ending we’re getting after such a long wait, I’m going to be furious!!! He’d better have thought things through!!

    Hard agree on Parisa, though. That arc was an absolute fail πŸ˜‚πŸ™ˆπŸ˜‚

    Finally, before this gets too long and I start telling you things you already know – It’s always a bit dangerous to let me stray into territory where I might start gushing about The Ballad of Song Birds and Snakes or These Violent Delights because you have to find a way to make me stop πŸ₯°πŸ€£ – I want to relativize my love for this trope a little, though. Because as much as I adore it, I’ve noticed that no book with an unlikeable protagonist has ever made it into my favorites of the favorites. Like, I love them, sure, but the books I reread over and over again to the point that it’s truly pitiful and would defend to the death are all ones with main characters whom I see a lot of myself in and love with all my heart… So I guess even for me, relatability does win over unlikeableness in the end? πŸ€”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😲

      I’m glad you had so much to say and I do like what you said about questioning a character’s motives. It’s such books that show the world isn’t black-and-white. People aren’t either good or bad and nobody ever thinks about themselves as an evil person. They have some logic that justifies everything, although it’s a logic that is mysterious to the rest of us. But a book that can make me go “oh, I get it” is a masterpiece.

      And I’m also still thinking about The People in the Trees πŸ˜„ Especially the ending because I think that was done to absolute perfection and I can’t get over how Yanagihara did that in her debut 🀯 But yeah, we did not need that many descriptions of irrelevant stuff.

      I’m glad you also saw that about Vicious too. It was also especially the “now” timeline that ruined the image of Victor for me and since it is half the book, I also had trouble really seeing him as that overly ambitious person in the past timeline. Every other chapter I was reminded that he was not actually that person if that makes sense. And Schwab do like to rely on vibes and not actions when building her characters, and I feel like Vicious especially suffered for that.

      And I’m also not fully set on my opinion of Kvothe. As I said, the way the ending ends up framing his story could flip it all around for me. I probably have to admit to being a pessimist though. I think the reason it’s taking Rothfuss so long is that he can’t make Kvothe’s character make sense. He can’t connect past and present Kvothe so when you’re saying you’re intrigued by WHY Kvothe is telling the story this way, I have to say that I don’t think Rothfuss knows.
      Also, you say that it’s very clear that Kvothe is meant to be unlikable… Well, I can tell you that there are several essays online defending him and claiming they don’t understand why readers don’t like him. So clearly not everyone got that memo πŸ˜…πŸ™ˆ (Seriously some of that is so cringe!)

      It’s interesting what you say about these books not being among your favorites. It’s not necessarily the case for me either although it does happen. I would definitely defend them like you describe but they aren’t the books I reread. I feel like it must be like rereading a murder mystery – once you know how it ends, it’s not worth reading again. That mystery element is gone in a reread and since that’s usually the most appealing part of the book, I don’t gravitate toward rereading πŸ€”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, if you’re right, Rothfuss had better do some good hard thinking! 😀 If he can come up with lyrical writing like that, he’d better also be able to do something with his story arcs! Although I do feel like he must have some idea of what happens in between πŸ€” His Chandrian plotline seems to be building towards something and he must’ve had some inkling of a plot when he named his series The Kingkiller Chronicle… So the guy had better deliver!

        Also, maybe I do kind of get the Kvothe defenders to a certain degree because even though I wanted to give him a good hard shake most of the time and thought he was an arrogant asshole, I also kind of related to parts of what he did? Like, I definitely liked him a lot more than, say, Coriolanus Snow or Norton Perina πŸ˜‚ But I still think he’s utterly obnoxious and don’t understand how people can possibly make it through those books without wanting to strangle him!

        And lol, I do actually reread murder mysteries a lot πŸ™ˆ At least the good ones! I love going back and suddenly being able to see all the puzzle pieces I missed the first time around πŸ˜‡ So while the lack of mystery may be part of why I don’t reread about unlikeable protagonists as much, I don’t think it’s the only reason πŸ€” I just want to spend more time with characters I love, I guess πŸ˜‚

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      2. I just think Kvothe by the end of book two is closer to being Kvothe at the start of book one than he is to being Kvothe from the present (hope that made sense). So based on how little he as a character has moved in two huge books, he is suddenly going to take some giant leaps in the last book and I just don’t see it happening convincingly. The same with the plot because he hasn’t built all that much yet. Where is that king he supposedly kills?
        And it might sound weird but I don’t have opinions of Snow and Norton like that. There’s no liking or not liking such characters for me. Therefore, I hate Kvothe and Parisa infinitely more because they’re badly written and don’t feel real πŸ˜…

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      3. Lol, I guess that kind of makes sense 😁 I also like Snow and Norton more in terms of their “interestingness”, but I still like Kvothe more as a person. Parisa, I hate in terms of both, so I guess we can at least agree that she’s the worst of the lot? πŸ˜‚

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  2. This is such an insightful post! I, too, find this trope fascinating and I agree with you on the reasons why. One the one hand, it really gives an insight to other people’s personalities that we might meet in the real world , while also providing traits we ourselves may relate to. I mean, no one is perfect- we can all be unlikable to other eyes. On the other hand, I think the unlikable character is enjoyed as a trope because, well, it can be fun. I think it’s quite enjoyable to read about asshole characters if they’re done well. Or maybe that’s just me πŸ˜…

    I think the unlikable main character trope is one of the most difficult tropes to pull off, since the author has to find a very specific balance in traits to avoid making the protagonist a caricature or the flaws easy to brush off. As you mentioned, it has to be clear that the author intends for the character to be unlikable in order for the trope to be a success.

    I haven’t read any of the books you discuss here (though I do hope I read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes somewhat soon), but the way you discuss the trope in relation to them has me intrigued. In fact, while in theory I enjoy this trope, I don’t think I’ve read many books including it.

    Gone Girl is the one that first comes to mind. Whoever you consider the protagonist of the novel (it can be both), I think we can all agree that the author has successfuly built characters deeply unlikable at their core, and yet very compelling to read about.

    I think I’ve encountered this trope more in classic literature. Characters like Dorian Gray, Madame Bovary, Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights are in my eyes intentionally written as unlikable. They have close to zero redeeming traits for their flaws and yet, whether I enjoyed their stories or not, they do make extremely compelling characters to read about. If we sympathise with them it’s up to us, not because the author shows them as uwu beans (<- very academic term, I know πŸ˜‚).

    I'm writing this in a hurry before I leave for work, but I hope I haven't derailed from the topic much. So yeah, the unlikable protagonist is a tricky yet fascinating trope and I'll keep the list of books you discussed as recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! πŸ₯° It’s not just you who loves to read about asshole characters – I do too. I guess it satisfies that part of us that loves drama so as long as it’s fictional drama and not our own, it’s great 😁

      I so agree with what you said about avoiding making them a caricature because I’ve definitely read my fair share of those. If everything about the character is so over the top and in your face, it becomes too obvious that they’re a character and not a real person and then you lose what’s so great about the trope.

      I haven’t read Gone Girl but I’ve watched the movie so I do know the character, although I guess reading it must be even more interesting!

      And I actually included Dorian Gray in the list of books I wanted to mention in this post but I just couldn’t incorporate it naturally. Putting it in a context with other classics is really interesting, though. I don’t know why I thought of it more as a modern trope but it really isn’t. I’m not very well-versed in classics so I haven’t read the others you mention, but I so love how you said that WE make the choice to sympathize with the characters or not. There’s something about the way these characters are presented that are very neutral so we aren’t forced to feel a certain thing about them.

      Also, uwu beans SHOULD be an academic term πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚ I perfectly knew what you meant!

      Liked by 1 person

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