One of my bookish pet peeves is when someone says they didn’t like a book because all the characters were unlikable.
Well guess what, it’s not the character’s job to make you like him or her. It’s the author’s job to make you care anyway. You might care because the character is a tragic villain (see: Aaron Burr in Hamilton) or because you can’t wait to see them get their comeuppance (see: any Game of Thrones villain; Voldemort.) But you don’t have to like them.
A character can be unlikable and still be a good character, just as a character can be totally likeable, an angelic snowflake of goodness, and still make for an awful character. Characters should be judged by depth, not whether we’d meet them for drinks at Applebee’s.
I happened to read two books in a row starring some pretty unlikable characters, both of them women.
In All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Andrea is 39, single, living in New York City and fond of sketching the Empire State Building and throwing massive pity parties for herself.
Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh, tells the story of the strange, lonely Eileen, who splits her time between a dull job at a juvenile prison and a cruel, alcoholic father. She enjoys keeping a dead mouse in her glove compartment and dressing in her deceased mother’s clothes.
Based on those two descriptions alone, whose story would you rather hear?
Andrea and Eileen. Neither of them are very nice, both of them have massive insecurities, and terrible judgment when it comes to choosing company. However, there was such a disconnect in my feelings for the characters that I had to drag myself to the end of All Grown Up while Eileen was weird, upsetting, and a blast to read.
Here are my thoughts on why these two characters occupy opposite ends of the love/hate spectrum.
Both stories are told from first-person perspective. Andrea’s narration is fractured and culminates in her present day situation of being 39 and (gasp) single. Eileen’s perspective is also retrospective, but it’s a slice of a particular time in her life (early 20’s) told from elderly Eileen’s point of view.
Andrea’s journey from her early twenties to “pre-forty” is static. She just keeps having sex with men who aren’t nice to her. She fairly sabotages her one semi-decent relationship. There’s nothing wrong with a sex-having woman, but her partner choices are destructive and literally the same thing over and over again. According to Einstein, Andrea is the definition of insanity.
She’s also a massively selfish downer; even when she holds her brain-dead, five-year old niece in her arms she is thinking about how her brother and sister-in-law have the perfect relationship she never had after all these years, oh god why?
Eileen’s older self, by contrast, has obviously gained some wisdom with age; even more importantly, she possesses one thing the dreary Andrea will never have: a sense of humor. Older Eileen openly mocks how dumb she was and how many dumb decisions she made, admitting, “I learned the long way about love, tried every house on the block before I got it right. Now, finally, I live alone.”
What occupation in NYC has the lowest unemployment rates?
I just made that up, but if I only knew about New Yorkers from books and TV shows, I would assume they’re all myopic, neurotic, self-obsessed asshats. There’s nothing new about Andrea under the sun. She’s a failed artist. She has a friend named Indigo who’s an amalgam of a yoga mantra and a sunbeam. She draws the Empire State Building, a structure most people have probably never heard of.
The worst offense of all? She’s boring AF. She’s the co-worker you avoid by ducking behind the nearest potted plant. Who cares, Andrea? Your brother and sister-in-law are raising a baby they know won’t live longer than a few years, and you’re mad because your mom isn’t paying attention to you. And it takes you ten years to realize your therapist sucks (it’s not me, it’s you.)
Eileen, by contrast, is creepy and weird and you’ve never met anyone like her before. She’s not “attractive” and doesn’t shower much. She has to drive her car with the windows down, even in winter, or the dysfunctional exhaust will poison her. She deliberately dresses like the Queen of Frumpytown, drinks too much, and hides her father’s shoes in the trunk of her car so he won’t go out and terrorize the town. Although her outer persona is carefully concealed behind resting bitch face, her inner life, bizarre and unappealing as it is, is interesting. Possibly one of the best things a character can have going for her.
3. Pride of Place
Andrea goes to Chicago. Andrea goes to Seattle. Andrea goes to Rhode Island. Andrea always comes back to NYC. It’s the best. Her dumb brother lives in Rhode Island in a rustic little property in the middle of the woods. It’s so gross.
Eileen lives in a crummy little New England town and dreams of going to New York. It’s the best. I guess I really don’t have a point here. New York is fine, but other places are nice too. Especially a cabin in the woods. Who doesn’t want a (non-haunted) cabin in the woods?
The irony of the title All Grown Up is that Andrea’s not. She’s about as dynamic as a fencepost. She doesn’t change or grow. Admittedly, the inability of a character to change is a main ingredient in tragedy. Look at Aaron Burr or the Joker; they both get shafted for their unwavering principles. But I don’t feel bad for Andrea. I don’t care. Her vapid self-interest and utter lack of humor and agency isn’t even deplorable; it’s just plain dull.
Eileen isn’t any nicer. She doesn’t make better decisions. She too suffers a long period of choosing men who aren’t nice to her. She is also alone. But while Andrea views her singleness as a personality defect, Eileen views hers as a triumph.
Most tellingly, Eileen recognizes, as cloistered as she is, there’s a larger world outside her own. Everywhere Andrea looks, all she sees is mirrors.