Perfectly Flawed

In defense of unlikable characters.

The BBC Films’ adapatation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin

Still photo courtesy of BBC Films © 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Like most writers, I’ve received my share of rejection letters. The most common criticism lobbed at my earlier manuscripts was that my main characters were “unattractive.” Ironically, though the accusation was meant to consign my novels to the bin, in latter career I am now perhaps most celebrated for crafting characters who are, to a degree, unattractive. But what does this mean?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. We’re not talking about villains, whom readers are invited to revile with relish—who are deliciously unattractive on purpose. Neither are we talking about the anti-hero: a protagonist the author has clearly portrayed as malign but for whom, curiously, we root anyway. An endearing mobster, Tony Soprano is an archetypal anti-hero. Ditto Calvin Piper in my fourth novel Game Control—a renegade demographer whose modest proposal to solve human overpopulation by killing two billion people overnight makes the man and his festive misanthropy no less beguiling. Anti-heroes aren’t actually unattractive—literarily, they function exactly like heroes—but morally they shouldn’t be attractive. We feel a little guilty about cheering them on, which is part of the pleasure, that daring little dance on the dark side.

Thirdly, we’re also not talking about characters who are unattractive by accident—whom the author intends to be loveable but who drive you insane. For example, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, the buffoon in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces , got powerfully on my nerves. Sometimes you simply cannot bear the company of an author’s characters, who inspire the same claustrophobic desperation to flee as overbearing dinner guests, and in that case you should read a different book.

So instead we’re talking flawed main characters, neither villains nor anti-heroes, whom the author has deliberately, even perversely contrived as hard to like. Most famously in my own work, Eva Khatchadourian, the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin, is hard to like: a woman whose world travels make her feel superior to her American compatriots, who experiences pregnancy as an infestation and, worst of all, who fails to love her own son.

Yet this “liking” business has two components: moral approval and affection. Eva’s snootiness is off-putting on a personal level; her loveless motherhood is also off-putting on a moral one. Like the phenomenon of the anti-hero, Gerard Woodward’s marvelous novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon illustrates how approval and affection can be at odds. A whole family of self-destructive drunks, the Joneses are morally horrendous but personally captivating.

Readers often get approval and affection confused. Countless book-club denizens have denounced Kevin’s narrator for not having taken her wayward little boy to see a therapist. (Why didn’t she? A cultural outsider, Eva would never take her kid to a shrink just because other Americans would, and her husband Franklin doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with the boy.) Another reader penned her indignation that Eva buys an animal from an “endangered species” for her daughter. (FYI, friend, the elephant shrew is not endangered; it’s simply unusual for a pet.) Another correspondent was incandescent that two characters in my eighth novel, The Post-Birthday World, order foie gras, and she fiercely disapproved of force-feeding ducks. All these readers are groping for moral justifications of an elusive emotional recoil that is harder to explain.

Those editorial rejections of yore implied that “unattractive” main characters alienate an audience, so commercially canny authors are obliged to write about nice people. But do we always want to read about characters who conform to current political conventions—who don’t smoke, never say anything bigoted, and always recycle their yogurt pots? Or who conform to our private code of behavior—in which case, fiction writers might write for niche markets, their novels labeled “suitable for vegetarians” (no characters eat meat) or “does not contain nuts” (what a pity, a novel without nuts). Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.

Mind, it’s easy to craft nice characters. With a patter of my fingers, I can force my wee puppets to spend all their time visiting the sick and rescuing cats from trees. I can stuff their dialogue with exhortations to give to the poor and cycle to work. I can have them pay their taxes and donate to charity without losing a dime of my own money. I can effortlessly make them laudable; why, all I need do to have a character speak five languages is bash out, “Johnny speaks five languages.” I can imbue my darlings with doctorates from Cambridge in five minutes and then send these erudite paragons on missions to save the rainforest without leaving my study. Still, honestly: do you want to read this stuff?

Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying. In fiction and reality both, multilingual, loftily-educated ponces on missions to save the rainforest are probably pains in the bum. Thus, however readily I might construct exemplars who pick up litter and volunteer at soup kitchens, this cheap courting of your approval might well backfire. Despite my heavy-handed stacking of the moral deck, you wouldn’t like them. Nick Hornby made exactly this point in his delightful novel How To Be Good, in which the main character’s determination to be virtuous—he gives away the family assets and invites homeless people to live in the house—is delectably repellent.

My most recent novel, So Much for That, balances on that peculiar tipping point where virtue itself is in danger of seeming a vice. The protagonist Shep Knacker is responsible, generous, hard-working—one of those take-on-the-sins-of-the-world types. But in redressing everyone else’s problems, Shep is responsible to a fault. After a while, the reader gets fed up. By allowing others to take advantage of him, our hero starts looking like a sucker. When he finally sticks up for himself, his belated pursuit of his own interest comes as a huge relief.

Now, courting reader affection is trickier than rigging reader approval but still not that difficult. If I make a character funny, entertaining, and clued-up, you’ll probably develop a fondness for my little ward. So why deliberately conceive characters who test your affection? Why make the narrator in Kevin contemptuous of her compatriots when I know that’s not appealing? Why is the American protagonist in A Perfectly Good Family portrayed as a duplicitous sneak who puts on a pretentious English accent when I could have crafted a loyal, honest, modest sister who’s perfectly charming?

Because in real life, people are not always perfectly charming. I try to duplicate in fiction the complex, contradictory, and infuriating people I meet on the other side of my study door. When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family. I’m less concerned that you love my characters than that you recognise them. Human beings have rough edges. Authors who write exclusively about ethical, admirable, likeable characters are not writing about real people.

Defective main characters are not my invention. In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert is a paedophile. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov thinks he’s so intelligent that conventional morality doesn’t apply to him; to prove his theory, he lands an axe in an old lady’s head. This is attractive? In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe duplicates this obnoxious elitism in his “master of the universe”, Sherman McCoy. Multiple Philip Roth and John Updike novels focus on vain, self-centred philanderers. Much like Kevin’s Eva, the couple in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road feel grander and more sophisticated than their dumpy suburban neighbours, though the reader can’t fathom why on earth they think they’re so damned special.

Yet all these characters are interesting, and readers want to be engaged even more than they want to be seduced. When purely affectionate and approving, a reader’s relationship to a character is flat. When positive feelings mix with censure and consternation, the relationship is dynamic. In fact, authorial elicitation of the reader’s frantic if impotent warning, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” is a powerful literary tool, for dismay generates energy and intensifies engagement. In Kevin, I made Eva’s husband Franklin deliberately exasperating—see-no-evil, he refuses to recognize his son’s growing malice—because this “What a dupe! Wake up, buddy!” reaction is involving and oddly enjoyable.

Ensuring the hero’s downfall, Greek tragedy’s “fatal flaw”—such as Oedipus’s quick temper—crops up well beyond the classics. In Shakespeare, Othello is doomed by jealousy, Lear by pride. Memorably “unattractive”, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is destroyed by narcissism and depravity. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a little girl’s entrancement with her budding powers of storytelling leads to eternal regret in her adulthood, while Nick Guest in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is felled by his infatuation with power and privilege. This fatal-flaw convention having grown positively stodgy, I was staggered when several critics failed to recognize the device in my sixth novel, Double Fault.

Willy Novinsky is an ambitious professional tennis player whose fierce competitiveness is an asset on the court but a disaster in her personal life; she becomes wildly rivalrous with her husband, who also plays tennis professionally. Exploring a natural peril of the two-career marriage, the novel is a cautionary tale: look what happens when competition gets out of control. Willy is not only unattractive to the reader but unattractive to herself, and it’s only her shame at wishing her own husband ill that rescues her from seeming altogether deplorable. Willy’s impetuous termination of an unintended pregnancy in order to pursue a dead-end career is meant to elicit another, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” But you can’t stop her, because this plot is inexorably hewing to a long-established form: Double Fault is a tragedy.

Yet numerous critics witlessly observed that Willy’s resentful, destructive behavior isn’t “attractive”. Well, duh. More than one female critic objected that Willy doesn’t make a very good “feminist role model.” Well, double duh.

Maybe we’re getting down to the nugget: it is possible to sympathize with characters, while still despairing of their misjudgments and even finding them irksome. Eva’s plight as the mother of a high school killer is sympathetic, whatever her shortcomings as a parent, for the scale of her punishment has been disproportionate. Willy’s career disappointment is heartbreaking, even if her rivalry with her husband is ugly and catastrophic. We can sympathize with people of whom we sometimes disapprove, and whom we may not entirely like.

Even more to the point: if Willy Novinsky isn’t jealous of her husband’s success, Double Fault would no longer be about anything, and there would be no book. Were Eva Khatchadourian a devoted mother who adored her son from birth, there would be no book—and Lynne Ramsay would never have released her excellent adaptation of the novel this week as a feature film. Were Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina both faithful wives, we would never know their names.

Good stories require mistakes. If you want to read about unimpeachable characters, order the annual report from Oxfam. If you want to read about difficult, complicated, maddening characters who remind you of people you know—who remind you, if you’re honest, of yourself—read Shakespeare. Read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Flaubert. Read Wilde, Updike, Roth, Yates, Wolfe, Woodward, McEwan, Hornby, Hollinghurst and Shriver.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.