Since many readers’ reviews mention whether they like a character or not, there is clearly a percentage of readers that want characters to be likeable and I think by extension reliable – but I am not convinced. I believe ‘Nice’ characters can be a bit dull (to read and write, although awesome to befriend in real life!!). Affable, accommodating, goodies would not necessarily provide the other things a reader hopes for in a novel: a sense of pacey jeopardy, fear and threat in the plot and a feeling of discovery, astonishment and shock, for example, may have to be sacrificed. Why? Not because nice is intrinsically dull, but because the majority of us are ‘nice’ or at least ‘nice enough’. I’d go as far to say that many of us are really rather likeable and therefore that type of character is familiar and known to us and as such they simply may not be as compelling.
Unlikeable protagonists are often unreliable narrators. I think that’s true in real life. Personally, I’ve had too many leading men that have had just a casual relationship with the truth. However, it is completely thrilling to be entertained, teased and cajoled by an unreliable narrator between the pages of a book. Understanding the psychology behind the unreliable narrator is fascinating. Humans are a complex mash on a sliding scale of morality. I think that’s what often propels a novel’s plot. So many thrillers are dependent on unlikeable characters or unreliable narrators. A guilty pleasure, they fascinate us and leave us breathless. I love writing the colder, crueller beings. They are great plot drivers, and also it is exciting to explore the mentality of outliers in society. Because of my love of a baddie, it may come as no surprise to you that in my novel Both of You there are a plethora of likeable and non-likeable characters. I have drawn some good, likeable characters who do bad things, as well as some bad, unlikeable people who do good things. To keep you guessing I have some utterly despicable people doing absolutely abysmal things too. Here are some of my favourite unlikeable leads!
Zoe Hellers’ Notes on a Scandal
In this novel the protagonists are both unlikeable, I can’t dress it up. They’re not people I’d want to be friends with and yet Barbara and Sheba are undoubtably powerful, persuasive and utterly fascinating. Barbara is embittered, self-deceiving, devious, vengeful and cruel. Sheba, is emotionally erratic and whilst charismatic enough to initially beguile, she is at the end of the day, an adulterer who has a relationship with a sixteen year old boy, an incredibly uncomfortable thing to digest! Nonetheless, this perceptive, surprising novel resists knee-jerk conventional moral judgements.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
In Gone Girl I’d argue neither protagonist turns out to be particularly likeable (sorry, spoiler!). However, the thriller was so successful and popular it arguably spawned an entire genre. An incredible commercial success, the title lingered on bestseller lists all over the world for many months. Flynn’s protagonists are not only shocking and unlikeable, they are also unreliable narrators. The effect created is mystifying and exciting by turn. The reader is invited to be a voyeur on a hideously dysfunctional marriage. Flynn ratchets up the tension with every page turned, the reader is absorbed in unexpected plot twists and teased by contradictory accounts. I promise you, none of that would have been achieved if Nick and Amy had been nice people! We are fascinated by them because they are just very, very bad.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
When I read this novel, I actually fainted. The full-on Victorian maiden thing. I was just that terrified of the bitter, soulless, pornographic step-by-step commentary of the sex scenes, and the uncompromisingly unemotional accounts of torture and mutilation. I loathe the protagonist. I am terrified of him, horrified by him. As a person Bateman has absolutely no redeemable features what-so-ever, as a character he is literally so bad, he is good. Irredeemably evil and totally unlikable yet compelling as a character.
Both of You by Adele Parks (HarperCollins) Out Now
Leigh Fletcher: happily married stepmum to two gorgeous boys goes missing on Monday. Her husband Mark says he knows nothing of her whereabouts. She simply went to work and just never came home. Their family is shattered. Kai Janssen: married to wealthy Dutch businessman, Daan, vanishes the same week. Kai left their luxurious penthouse and glamorous world without a backward glance. She seemingly evaporated into thin air. Daan is distraught. DC Clements knows that people disappear all the time - far too frequently. Most run away from things, some run towards, others are taken but find their way back. A sad few never return. These two women are from very different worlds, their disappearances are unlikely to be connected. And yet, at a gut level, the DC believes they might be. How could these women walk away from their families, husbands and homes willingly? Clements is determined to unearth the truth, no matter how shocking and devastating it may be.
Both of you can be bought on Amazon.