Do you stick with unlikable characters?



By Caitlin Kelly


Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.

So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?

I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.

Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.

But how much of it can you take?

I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:

Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.

The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.

These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!

Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.

Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri  hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.

I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways,  appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)

Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.

Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.

Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.

I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.


Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!


How do you feel about unlikable characters?

26 thoughts on “Do you stick with unlikable characters?

  1. Love Issa (proving that colour and age are not sufficient barriers) but bailed on Sharp Objects (too ugly, too twisted…). I will stick with a show once I’ve truly engaged with characters and feel like I’m
    rooting for them, however annoying. My fetush series of themiment is Episodes with Matt Leblanc. Never watched Friends but am totally hooked on the UK/US

    1. Argh! … cultural divide. Plus the whole writer frustration, stranger in a strange land thing as sentient beings in lala land try to make sense of Hollywood. In the end, what trumps it for me (and I use the word reluctantly) is great writing and characters you can’t abandon.

    2. I want to love Issa! But also shake her by the shoulders…

      Yeah, SO is a tough one and soooooo slow. There is only one episode left and good for that. The second to last (saw it last night) now feels rushed as they finally explain what the hell is happening.

  2. katieperov

    For me to hang on to a story, whether I’m reading or watching, there has to be some balance (unless there’s some really gripping, overarching message that I can’t let go of) between the despicable and lovable characters and there has to be depth of character in all. Recently I watched Turn (Washington’s Spies) on Netflix- if you’re into historical dramas and/or the American Revolution, watch it!- But even now, days after I’ve finished the seasons, I’m thinking about all these characters! There were characters to love and to hate, and because almost all grew and changed, and had real depth, I miss them all!

  3. I have not seen any of these shows, and I’m not sure I will in the future (though I may read the book Sharp Objects is based on at some point).

    I’ve actually written about unlikable protagonists before. It was after I read Gone Girl, I think, and it still gets a lot of reads. To sum up the article, there are plenty of reasons to follow an unlikable protagonist, but it takes a lot of care and careful planning to tell a story featuring one worth following.

    I don’t think I’ve used an unlikable protagonist in a story of my own yet, though. Perhaps I will someday, though. As I said, the stories they feature in have to be handled carefully, or you’re going to lose your audience.

    1. So true…

      I watched several FB friends saying they’d simply given up on Succession and Sharp Objects as everyone was so creepy and horrible — and these are six-episode shows or more so you see a lot of them.

      1. I think Hollywood is so obsessed with making complex characters they can mine for several seasons, they forget that someone can be complex without being so full of damage that they’re awful. It’s part of the reason why I stopped watching How to Get Away with Murder: I just got so tired of everyone being so damn unlikable. Yeah, they have issues, but that’s no reason to be so nasty to everyone around you! Do something–anything!–to make me want to root for you! Please!

        And that was my thought process right before I stopped watching the series.

  4. I’m not watching any of these, but I was thinking of giving Mrs. Maizel a try, so thanks for the heads up on that. I’m watching Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing, but as he is an extremely likeable character, it would seem I digress.

    Cathy and I have been watching a show called Animal Kingdom. Ellen Barkin plays the most despicable person I have ever seen on TV (News doesn’t count). I guess, for the most part, I prefer a likeable hero.

    1. Margaret

      I recently tried to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose but he’s so meant and bitter, I can’t bear it. I sat there watching him shoot up and thought “is this actually enriching my life”? I don’t think so somehow.

      1. I read (and loved) the Patrick Melrose novels — but I only watched one of the films. The novels are a very heavy lift, but so was St. Aubyn’s life! In context, his terrible choices make more sense.

  5. I really want to watch Succession. My Dad watches it, and he says it reminds him of us when we fight. And so now I am doubly intrigued.

    Do you watch Billions? I hate them all, but I kinda love them all, too.

    1. Succession is fascinating as study in family dynamics and power, for sure. It’s not easy to watch at times as the characters are so…mean/stupid/devious. But there’s plenty to see.

      I watched a bit of Billions and liked it. But not the whole thing.

      While we’re at it…Claire and Frank Underwood from House of Cards. WHEW!

  6. The only one I’ve watched is Mrs. Maisel–probably because I don’t like shows that are too dark or have characters with no redeeming qualities. I liked her–but I’m a divorced mom doing it on my own. I see what you’re talking about. I still liked her chutzpah:). Unlikable characters and depressing scenarios is why I only lasted two shows with Breaking Bad, despite the rave reviews . . . now Handmaid’s Tale and Newsroom–those two are worth it!

    1. I never watched Breaking Bad — I can only stand so much violence (which turned me off Peaky Blinders and The Wire.) Haven’t seen Handmaid’s Tale because this summer has been bleak enough for me. I did enjoy the Newsroom.

  7. i haven’t seen any of these shows, and they sound like a bit of a mixed-bag, based on your reviews. i generally don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters, as they exist in the world and are a part of life, though i wouldn’t want to have to deal with them in real life. if they are interesting, it doesn’t mean i have to like them as human beings, though sometimes i do lose my tolerance for them,

    if they are a one-sided coin. i get a bit bored by them and i prefer to see/learn a bit of what makes them who they are and what leads them to be such an unlikeable human being in the first place. it puts it into context for me, making them more tolerable. in the end, i think it depends on the quality of the story, and if the show as a whole, draws me in for whatever reason, logical or not.

    1. Exactly.

      In the case of Mrs. Maisel, all we know is that she’s 26 with 2 small kids and a rich family and went to Bryn Mawr. So that is meant to position her as someone with few work skills…but this still (for me) doesn’t make her someone I find compelling. She’s a scrapper, but the stakes are low — she moves in with her parents and someone else babysits for her all the time. Too soft a landing, for me, to be realistic. Her only struggle is to make it as a comic…not clear why it’s so important to her.

      In Sharp Objects we can see, in some ways, why Camille is so self-destructive (nasty mother) but not everyone from that background ends up such a mess. And she is consistently a mess…six hours of that feels wearying to me.

  8. I haven’t watched any of these shows. But sticking with a show, especially one that has truly unlikable characters, is challenging. Right now, we’re watching Walking Dead (which I never in a million years thought I could get into, what with all the gore and violence) and we’re into Season 7, with Negan (love this actor, he is so handsome yet so very evil) a main character. I am hoping, very likely in vain, that he will reveal some redeeming qualities at some point here!

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