This is a follow up to my post on writing unlikeable characters.
I’ll be honest. It’s a pretty arbitrary list. There were way too many contenders. If you’d like to add some of your own at the end, you’re extremely welcome.
My main guiding principle here was that you probably wouldn’t want to go to the pub with any of these characters, but that they are also compelling and brilliant.
N.B. The order is as arbitrary as the list.
You’re welcome for the stunning illustrations.
Angelo manages to combine being a bit of a cold fish with being a sex pest.
[I’m limiting myself to one Shakespeare character otherwise I would use up the whole list. Honourable mentions go to Iago, Goneril and Regan, Tamora, Lady Macbeth… Although I should remember I’m going for ‘unlikeable’ rather than simply villainous. There may in some cases be a distinction. Richard III, for instance, seems like he’d be great company, so long as he isn’t busy murdering you.]
2. Lot, The Bible
Perhaps this seems a surprising choice, given the cornucopia of unlikeable characters in the Bible. Lot is sort of meant to be a goodie, but he also offers up his two virgin daughters to the baying crowds of Sodom to be raped instead of the visiting angels. It’s too easy sometimes to criticise the Bible without understanding the cultural forces that shaped it. But in this case…
3. Egon Loeser, The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
Ned Beauman is very good at unlikeable yet brilliant characters. Loeser is so self-absorbed, so obnoxious – and yet so wonderful.
4. Mr Collins, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Austen is another writer who excels at creating characters who are unappealing but often hilarious. Mr Collins was the stand out choice, with all his creeping pomposity, but other strong contenders include Sir Walter Elliot (Persuasion), Augusta Elton (Emma), Fanny Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) and Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey).
5. Gilbert Osmond, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Isabel Archer makes a catastrophic error of judgement, mistaking in Osmond cultivation for depth of feeling and character. She finds herself being cherished as a collector’s item rather than loved.
Here is Ralph’s chilling observation about Isabel after her marriage to Osmond: ‘The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond.’
6. Basie, Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
The consummate survivor. Ruthless yet somehow impressive. Like Jim, I found myself drawn to him, so perhaps he doesn’t really belong on the list. Because actually I wouldn’t mind going down the pub with Basie, so long as I didn’t have to rely on him for anything (e.g. getting in his round). Jim himself has some characteristics in common with Basie, in his resourcefulness and ambiguity. There are no heroes in this novel.
7. Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary by Flaubert
A great example of a character who is hugely frustrating, but whom we still ultimately pity (I did, anyway. But I’m a very nice person).
8. Mrs. Dubose, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I was going to put the virulently racist Bob Ewell originally, an extremely nasty piece of work – he beats his daughter, lies to try and have an innocent man executed and even attempts child-murder. But it didn’t seem a very interesting choice, since Ewell doesn’t have a single redeeming feature, and ‘unlikeable’ doesn’t really cut it.
Far more interesting is Mrs. Dubose, the elderly, cantankerous neighbour who taunts Jem and Scout Finch and about their father’s role as Tom Robinson’s lawyer. Not much to like here, either. Mrs Dubose is as racist as Bob Ewell, and spiteful with it. And yet as ever, Atticus is able to make his children and the reader see things in a new light, drawing attention to Mrs Dubose’s dogged struggle to overcome her morphine addiction before she dies. ‘I wanted you to see what real courage is,’ Atticus tells Jem, ‘instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.’ Mrs. Dubose leaves the novel as unlikeable as ever, but admirable with it.
It’s moments like this, utterly moving without being sentimental, that have made To Kill a Mockingbird a classic.
9. Uriah Heep, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
I had this on audiobook as a child, brilliantly read by Martin Jarvis. I’ve been haunted ever since by Uriah’s unctuous voice. ‘I am so ’umble…’
10. Meursault, L’Etranger by Albert Camus
‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.’
I read this flat opening sentence in my A-Level French class years ago, and was duly chilled. Meursault’s emotional detachment keeps the reader at a distance, but he is also a truth-teller among liars, and we mind what happens to him at the end.