Complex but compelling, maddening but memorable, many great literary characters are unattractive. As the film of Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is released, the author explores the appeal of the unappealing
Like most writers, I’ve received my share of rejection letters. The most common criticism lobbed at my earlier manuscripts was that my main characters were “unattractive”. Ironically, though the accusation was meant to consign my novels to the bin, in latter career I am now perhaps most celebrated for crafting characters who are, to a degree, unattractive. But what does this mean?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. We’re not talking about villains, whom readers are invited to revile with relish – who are deliciously unattractive on purpose. Neither are we talking about the anti-hero: a protagonist the author has clearly portrayed as malign but for whom, curiously, we root anyway. An endearing mobster, Tony Soprano is an archetypal anti-hero. Ditto Calvin Piper in my fourth novel Game Control – a renegade demographer whose modest proposal to solve human overpopulation by killing two billion people overnight makes the man and his festive misanthropy no less beguiling. Anti-heroes aren’t actually unattractive – literarily, they function exactly like heroes – but morally they shouldn’t be attractive. We feel a little guilty about cheering them on, which is part of the pleasure, that daring little dance on the dark side.
Thirdly, we’re also not talking about characters who are unattractive by accident – whom the author intends to be loveable but who drive you insane. For example, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, the buffoon in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, got powerfully on my nerves. Sometimes you simply cannot bear the company of an author’s characters, who inspire the same claustrophobic desperation to flee as overbearing dinner guests, and in that case you should read a different book.