• On Unlikable Characters

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Character     Comments 1 comment

    The Woman Upstairs, Claire MessudIn this 2013 interview with Publishers Weekly, Claire Messud was asked if she’d like to be friends with her character Nora from The Woman Upstairs, someone the reporter described as “almost unbearably grim.” Messud’s irritation at the question–“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? […] If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”–sparked a string of essays in defense of the so-called unlikable character.

    Among our favorites are:

    1. Roxane Gay’s at Buzzfeed: “Why is likability even a question? Why are we so concerned with, whether in fact or fiction, someone is likable?”

    2. James Hynes’ at Powell’s: “The uncensored human consciousness is not necessarily a pretty thing.”

    3. This New Yorker roundup of various authors, among them Margaret Atwood and Tessa Hadley.

    We at WriteByNight love unlikable characters. We even love scouring listicles of the most unlikable characters, such as this one from HuffPo, and this from SparkNotes.

    We even made one of our own a few years back, “The 10 Worst Literary Valentines.”

    In Short

    In last week’s e-newsletter we offered up a recording from a recent In Short Fiction Workshop, where you can hear instructor Cecily Sailer talk about writing “unsavory but engrossing” characters. Go check it out. And if you like it, join our mailing list, which you can do on the right sidebar or at the bottom of the comments section.

    And for you WBNers in or around Austin, here’s a friendly reminder that registration is open for our December 13 In Short, our final one of 2014. Check it out and register now.


    Readers: What are some of your favorite unlikable characters in fiction? Do you have trouble reading about characters you wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life? Or the nastier the character the better the experience? Let us know in the comments below.

    Writers: What are some of your tips & tricks for writing unlikable characters? Do you try to steer clear of them, or do you enjoy writing characters you wouldn’t like in real life? Chime in below.


    David DuhrWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is books editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and others.


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    A. Jackson

    Like Clara Messud says in that interview “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” No! And I wouldn’t want my daughter to be, either. Or my son, for that matter. Who knows how deep that guy’s problems run?

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x