August 16, 2017

The dangerous difference between unlikeable and intolerable

There is a fine line between annoying and intolerable. Personally, I have danced across this line so often that I am very familiar with the difference. Unfortunately, there are some characters who are completely unaware that there even is a line. 

All readers have met unlikeable characters sometime in their book adventures. These are the characters who make your blood boil and your veins bulge in frustration. For some reason or another, they get on your nerves. In fact, they are a common literary tool used to stir up emotion within the reader. Think about all of the romances that are hate-to-love. In the beginning, we all hated Rhys from A Court of Thorns and Roses (and even though some of us still hate him, you get the point), Will Herondale from The Infernal Devices, the Darkling from The Grisha series, even Haymitch from The Hunger Games. When I think about it, there are a lot of characters who started pretty high on my "I'd-love-to-watch-you-burn" list, but ended up on my list of favorite characters. I classify these characters as "unlikeable" since they rub me the wrong way sometimes, but have not completely lost their chance for my respect

But, there is another kind of annoying character. The kind that crosses the line between decent indecency and hateful scumbag. These characters are definitely unbearable, but sometimes it can be hard to discern when they changed from merely unlikeable to full-blown intolerable.

Crossing the Line

For better or worse, all readers have also encountered characters who are too annoying. They are no longer amusing and their presence escalates your blood pressure more than the plot.  

In my recent book exploits, I have come across the epitome of an intolerably annoying character: Reshma from Enter Title Here. Thankfully, I don't think the book is all that popular. But if you want to experience the stupidest and most annoying narrator I have come across, give the book a try. I promise that you will never finish it. 

Anyway, intolerable narrators come in many varieties but there are a few staple characteristics that always seem to grind my gears.

I hate whiny narrators. I hate narrators who are too self-absorbed to talk about anything but themselves. I hate narrators who are so caught up in their romance that they forget about literally everything else. I hate narrators who believe they can do no wrong, even when they obviously are doing something very illegal, immoral, and sleazy. If any of those boxes are checked (or all of them, in which case, I will consider setting the book on fire), I abandon the intolerable character and their story. 

Even the Worst Can be Redeemed

All hope is not lost once characters reveal themselves to be unlikeable. I tend to be a forgiving reader, particularly when it comes to characters early on in a book. For me, the magic of characters is all in their development, especially what I consider the redemption curve. I love it when authors can completely change my mind about a character for the better. The best example is Rhys from ACOTAR or, if I can throw in a classic, Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities.

In real life, first impressions are rarely the clearest view of a person. I try to avoid judging people on my their first interaction with me, so the same goes for book characters. I am willing to give characters a little bit of leeway, a little bit of time to hopefully get past their idiosyncrasies, or even better, give the story some time to explain them to me. 

Long Analogy Time

Unlikeable narrators are more like a teacher that you cannot quite get along with. The teacher rubs you the wrong way, perhaps by calling you out for reading your latest YA favorite under your desk or something equally atrocious. Anyway, you cannot pass the class without at least tolerating the teacher. In the same way, you need an unlikeable narrator to get you through the story. Their voice may sound glass scratching on a chalkboard, but the narrator is the only way to see the story. Eventually, back in school, you realize that you need extra help. Reluctantly (that means with at least five heavy sighs) you stay after school with Professor Payne to talk about integrals and derivatives and junk like that. Graciously, Professor complies and stays past his office hours to help you figure out the jumble of letters and numbers that is calculus. He ignores your growing stack of crumpled paper, countless eye rolls, and muttered curses. Instead of impatiently screaming at you like in your nightmares, he gently reminds you that 2+2=4. At the end of the day, you have a working (but not perfect) understanding of calculus, as well as a grudging respect for the professor that stuck around to help.

Point of No Return

The main difference between an intolerable narrator and an unlikeable one is how they develop (or don't). A unlikeable narrator may start with a bad rep, like Professor Payne and his uncharacteristically ironic name, but ends with a little bit of your trust and understanding. Intolerable narrators, the kind that has made me give up on books and even some authors, do not change. They remain static in their mistakes, imperfections, and weaknesses, often without even being aware of them. 

There are also a few cases that automatically place a character on my "no-chance-for-redemption" list:

  • Spreading messages of hate, explicitly or implicitly
  • Attacking any group of people in regards to race, religion, gender, sexuality, or any other personal characteristics 
  • Normalizing the stereotypes that belittle the progress we have made and are still hoping to make in the fight against social oppression and injustice 


1. Teachers are awesome, when though they may seem scary and strict at first. 
2. The strength of a character lies in their development, not necessarily in their first impression.
3. Characters have a chance for redemption through their development. A hated character can eventually turn into a beloved friend through their development. 

Can you stand unlikeable characters? What is the difference between unlikeable and intolerable characters to you? Have you ever abandoned a book because the main character was intolerable? 

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