When I think of memorable characters, more than a few are unlikable, such as Joy in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” a young woman with a wooden leg who is so bitter and angry, she’s renamed herself Hulga for the ugliness of the name. Even worse is Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a pompous man who has an unseemly interest in the pre-teen girls he calls “nymphets.” Not necessarily the type of people I like to sit down with for coffee, but they certainly make for some interesting fiction.
Unlikable characters can be intriguing, but in order for such a character to work, writers have to uphold the same high standards that apply to all characters. Unpleasant characters must be as multi-dimensional as characters that are easier to like. Just as the heroic football quarterback isn’t always heroic, neither is the skulking, evil slouch plotting plans of destruction every waking moment.
Once you make your jerk of a character believable, your next step is to make the reader care about him. You can do this by helping the reader understand the character, perhaps even experience some sympathy. In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert’s attraction to young Lolita is abhorrent. But Humbert Humbert is not depicted as a monster. He is a human with feelings the reader can recognize. One night, for example, Humbert Humbert stands outside his hotel room, where Lolita sleeps, and grapples with the disgust of his own desire. He wishes he could turn away from the door, leave the key at the desk and walk away from her. While not everyone deals with the extreme desire that Humbert Humbert does, this basic struggle—to want what we shouldn’t—is very human.
Of course, unlikable characters don’t have to be as extreme as Humbert Humbert. In O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Joy is mean-spirited and has a dismal disposition. The reader cares about her, though, because of her vulnerability. She fantasizes that Manley Pointer, a door to door Bible salesman, falls for her and she is willing to show him the intimate spot where her wooden leg joins on to her real leg. Her desire to connect is universal.
This is precisely what makes unpleasant characters compelling: they are too much like ourselves to ignore.