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Unlikable Characters

Does a book’s main character always have to be likable? If you think back on your favorite main characters, many were almost surely ones you liked, or at least admired or related to on some level. Even villains are sometimes not totally unlikable, especially when they have a powerful quality or a character flaw that makes us pity them in some way, such as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

But sometimes there are characters you just can’t figure out. You want to like them, but they are annoying or irrational. They might take two steps forward and then one step back. This was the case with a book I recently read, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. Set in the not-so-distant future in a world of vanishing wildlife precipitated by climate change, it details what is believed to be the last migration of Arctic terns and the quest to follow them. The lead character, Franny Stone, is passionate, bright and resilient. But she is also self-destructive, dysfunctional and misguided. She is unable to fully commit to anyone or anything and therefore has issues staying in one place for long periods of time.

When it appears she finally does commit and settle down, the book then jumps to a different point in time when it is clear this is not the case. I typically like to feel more invested in a character at the beginning of a story and found it difficult to do this with Franny. She is often angry, abrasive and unwilling to compromise, pushing away those trying to help her. It was honestly so frustrating to read that I almost gave up a couple of times. It wasn’t until the very end that her full backstory is unspooled, and I was able to have that “a-ha” moment about why she behaves the way she does.

Some readers might really enjoy this kind of puzzle, with its time jumps and subversive clues. I like some degree of mystery, but not typically when the character is so stubborn and aggravating.  However, I was glad I persevered through Migrations. I ended up admiring the way McConaghy was able to leave the significant facts to the end. It made me realize that I shouldn’t necessarily jump to conclusions with a character and “give up” too soon. There might be a big reveal or redeeming factor behind a character’s personality or actions. I just need to be patient and wait.

A related concept is the idea of an “unreliable narrator,” which has seen an uptick in recent years, particularly regarding books of suspense. Think Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. For more articles on the subject, see “The Great Gatsby and the challenge of unreliable narrators,” The Lancet; “Offline: The danger of unreliable narrators,” The Lancet, “What Gone Girl Tells Us about Feminism,” Academic Questions; “Reliable, Unreliable, and Deficient Narration: A Rhetorical Account,” Narrative Culture.