There’s a lot of talk nowadays about whether characters are likable and unlikeable, often in the context of female characters, and whether women aren’t allowed to be unlikable in the way that male characters are. Personally, I’ve always felt that likable and unlikable aren’t the primary issue. Characters are allowed to be immoral and self-absorbed, what they’re not allowed to be is both self-absorbed and weak. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White are terrible people, but they’re not weak. People watch them because they feed into a power fantasy. In this context, it’s almost good that they’re unlikable, because their unlikability confirms the conventional wisdom: yes, you can be powerful, but it means being a dick; ergo you wouldn’t want to be powerful, because you don’t want to be a dick.
Whereas female anti-heroes are often acting within a society that sidelines them and makes them weak. Nancy Botwin, in Weeds, for instance, was always one failure away from total calamity. And it’s the same with Piper in Orange Is The New Black. Or with Cersei in Game of Thrones. These are much-reviled characters, because they’re so often unsuccessful. In this light it’s interesting to look at Sansa’s transformation in Game of Thrones. She’s long been one of the most reviled characters in the show, despite not being that bad of a person. She was a bit self-centered in the beginning, but she was also thirteen. And the moment her father died (at the end of book / season one!) she instantly went into survival mode and did whatever she needed to stay live. However, because, for Sansa, the strong thing to do was often to cower and to simper and to plead, she was hated. But this season, when she’s become Machiavellian, blood-thirsty, and, arguably, evil, she’s suddenly beloved! And why? It’s because she’s powerful and in charge.
Recently I was reading a book, Cynthia D’Aprix-Sweeney’s The Nest, in which at the start of the book, every single character is awful. They’re simply the worst. And they’re not just greedy and self-centered; they’re also weak. The story is about a group of siblings who’re angry at their older brother because he’s squandered an inheritance they were counting upon. And is composed of many interesting and humorous strands, but for the longest time I was like, why would I care about any of these people? They are worms. The only worthwhile one is their elder brother.
But in the end that’s exactly what the book is about. Relying on this trust has weakened them and turned them into shells. As the book progresses, they break free and learn to pursue their desires and trust in one another, while their elder brother, who remains concerned primarily with money and status, never manages to become larger.
It’s a great performance, and while at times it verged on sentimental in its desire to give happy endings to every character, I also appreciated the warmth and the hope. But I still don’t know why I trusted the book enough to give it all the pages it needed in order to effect these transformations.
There’s a systematic tendency towards grimness in our fiction because it’s a lot easier to hook a reader’s attention by giving them somebody noble, and then letting that person despoil themselves. The opposite–the redemption of an ignoble person–is a much harder thing to sell, because you have to start with somebody who, well, needs redemption. And if the person is both ignoble and powerless? Well, that seems almost impossible. But for some reason in this book it works.