I’ve seen a lot of chatter over the last couple of years—let’s call them the Gone Girl years—about what it means for a character to be likable or unlikable. Most of the argument is about whether characters have to be likable for the book to be successful and worth reading. Let’s skip that part. We’ve all seen the response for the books that have tried to capture some of the Gone Girl zeitgeist, including another Girl, and this one on the Train. People have varying opinions, but it seems as though some of us don’t mind a few bad girls among the good.
What’s more important to understand is when a jerk as a narrator is worth the risk. What’s likability worth to you, as an author?
Likable narrators inspire empathy in the reader. They’re like us, or the us we hope we are. If we’re going to live vicariously through someone else for three hundred pages, it’s not a stretch to understand why readers prefer a lens of likability. Characters are people we spend time with, after all, and our time is more precious than ever.
In contrast, unlikable narrators are, in the parlance of reality TV, not here to make friends. They keep readers at arm’s length, which means the author must be that much more able to engage the reader in other ways. Sure Humbert Humbert from Lolita is one of our best examples of a successfully written unlikable narrator—but it took no less than the great Vladimir Nabokov at the height of his skills to pull it off.
So why would a reader bother with an unlikable or hard-to-like narrator at all? Because they aren’t like us. Because they live lives that are unlike ours. Because they get to say things we wish we could say. And because, perhaps most of all, they get to break the rules. Watching rule-breakers get away with transgressions or get caught and punished for them is one of the greatest joys of crime fiction, in particular.
The question you need to answer as a writer, though, is why you will bother with one. Unlikable narrators might round out points of view in a multi-view story. They might reveal aspects of the human psyche you want to explore. They could embody themes you want to spend time on. And of course they’re usually more interesting than a nice, normal person, and much more likely to get into the kind of trouble that makes for a good story. But the only reason to make your narrator unlikable is because that character is the best person to tell the story. If you can honestly say the right person is talking, the choice isn’t even a choice, is it? That jerk just started talking, and now he’s in charge.
What’s a writer to do? Time to get your Nabokov on and let the jerk drive.
Lori Rader-Day is an award-winning suspense author from Chicago. Seventh Street Books published her newest book, “Little Pretty Things,” on July 7, 2015. Her debut novel, “The Black Hour,” won the 2015 Love Award for Best First Novel and earned nominations for the 2015 Mary Higgins Clark Award and Left Coast Crime Rosebud Award for Best Debut Mystery. Lori is active in the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter, Sisters in Crime Chicagoland Chapter and International Thriller Writers.
Join Lori in the studio for The Perfect Crime: Mystery Writing, starting Wednesday, Oct. 14th.