Unlikeable characters

I found myself wasting time one day (scandalous, of course, since writers should never waste time) and scrolling through my Netflix recommendations. Since my husband and I watch a lot of TV shows on Netflix, one recommendation was It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and after it sat on my queue for an embarrassingly long time, I finally watched a few episodes.

The first one was pretty funny. The second, a little less so. After that they became tedious, and when the tediousness finally outweighed the humor, I took the show off my queue. Back to my previous Netflix time-waster: Arrested Development.

This begs a question, though. Both shows can be summarized (if a bit oversimplified) by saying they’re about unlikeable characters. But I like one show a whole lot more than the other one. Why? And what does this say, from a writerly standpoint, about creating unlikeable characters?

It’s a little risky writing unlikeable characters. You can’t completely alienate your readers, after all, and if your readers really don’t like your characters they probably won’t stick around. I’ve written some characters I disliked so much I couldn’t even finish writing their books. But considering the popularity of antiheroes, shows about criminals, and even Always Sunny, there’s got to be something that keeps people coming back to certain unlikable characters.

One factor might be relatability. This would explain why different characters appeal to different people, and why some people like Always Sunny a lot more than I do. Always Sunny is about four twenty-somethings who own a pub together. They have no business sense (which frequently becomes a plot point), they’re irresponsible, they drink a lot, and the three men are constantly trying to get laid (another frequent plot point). Which, of course, describes a lot of twenty-somethings. It described a lot of my friends I had when I was in my twenties, albeit in an oversimplified manner. Maybe I would have found it funnier then. At my current age, it just reminds me of those sad folks who never grew up, and I got as tired of the show as I did of hanging out in pubs.

Arrested Development, in contrast, has a much broader palette of characters: the sole responsible character who nonetheless makes some really terrible decisions, his rich and selfish parents, his hapless and put-upon son, and an assortment of other goofballs. If nothing else, a few of the characters become sympathetic because they have to deal with the other ones. Relatability might not be the best term in this case, since it’s hard to imagine a real person relating literally to anything that happens in this show, but there’s an undercurrent of something very relatable: being embarrassed by everyone around you, and having no idea how to deal with the ridiculous situations you find yourself in.

Which brings me to the next point: humor. One approach to humor is setting up an expectation and then pushing it over the edge, as seen in the famous joke, “My wife ran off with my best friend. God, I’ll miss him.” Arrested definitely pushes those expectations into absurd territory – it’s the central joke of the show. Always Sunny, on the other hand, tells the same joke over and over. Bunch of drunk and horny guys doing dumb things. Some of the situations do get absurd, but there’s very little new from episode to episode.

A third factor, and probably the most important one from a writer’s standpoint, is one I actually don’t much see at work in either show. Many unlikeable characters become compelling because you understand what made them that way. A tragic backstory might be a cliché, and it might not completely redeem a character, but some sense of why a character is behaving in a certain way is essential to understanding them. You get a little of that in Arrested, although no backstory is as important to the show as the jokes. In Always Sunny, the only thing making the characters act the way they do is that they haven’t grown up yet. Again, this will make them relatable to some people and not others.

Any other thoughts on unlikeable characters and what might make them readable anyway?

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