First, there was the alpha hero, your traditional alpha male, with his big personality and even bigger ego. He is the cream of perfection. Then, came the beta hero..or the beta male. This hero is smart. He’s not egotistical and he’s shocked at the end of the story when he winds up with the super-model girlfriend/wife or equally improbable prize at the close of the story because he’s the less desirable figure either because of his physique or other limiting qualities. You may remember such a character from movies like Knocked Up. Both of these archetypes can be found in stories today, despite the flux of beta heroes in recent times. The beta hero is a type of anti-hero because he lacks qualities of a traditional hero. A lot of this is more attributable to film as opposed to literature. But there are certainly examples of both in each medium. And this concept is still growing and changing.
The reason I bring all this up is because there is a new character archetype that has grown out of this beta male vs alpha male hero, and though I use the word hero, I don’t necessarily mean to stick to one gender. This new anti-hero is experiencing a growth in popularity, particularly in the realm of literary fiction. The new hero is even more questionable than the first two. He or she does not really have any redeeming qualities. He or she may be weak or strong, ugly or beautiful. It varies. But, this new hero is, for all intents and purposes, unlikable. They are mean or annoying or are just clearly bad people. They possess few, if any, redeeming qualities. And yet they are the narrators and the heroes of the stories we are reading.
The unlikable hero or lead character takes a lot of work as a writer. To be able to convince a reader that it is worthwhile to keep reading when the person they are reading about is simply terrible takes an exorbitant amount of skill. I’ve been finding more and more books lately that feature characters who lack any sort of redeeming quality. This trend has confused me because I can’t for the life of me figure out why I would want to read about someone I detest. But yes, I’ve done it. One writer who has done this in at least two books now is Elizabeth Strout. She won the Pulitzer awhile back for her novel Olive Kittridge (which I’ve read). The second book I’ve read by her is The Burgess Boys. These were both book club picks and perhaps I would have been inclined to picked them up on my own. But perhaps not. I do know that I would have been less inclined to finish these stories if I didn’t have the book club requirement.
Now, there’s nothing WRONG with creating characters that are unlikable. It’s an intriguing literary device. And while the above books were not my favorite reads of all time, I did appreciate the writer’s skill and I appreciated the books for the discussion they aroused in our book club. But I am most intrigued in the meaning of their existence in this long succession of heroes.
The fact that an author uses an unlikable character makes it extremely difficult for the writer to convince a reader that they should feel sorry for the plight that ensnares their hero. I’m not saying that I characters need to be wholly likeable or charming. That’s unrealistic and boring. But what purpose does the unlikable hero serve?
One thought is that he or she serves to express the current attitude and belief in society. With every generation, the world gets worse (supposedly). It’s not safe for kids to wander alone in their neighborhood. People are worse than ever before. Perhaps the unlikable hero is attempting to reflect that in some way.
Certainly, such a hero or someone with altered morality is interesting in some respects. Take the show Breaking Bad. This guy makes drugs but because he does it to pay for his cancer drugs and he’s unlucky, you like him and you root for him. You want him to succeed, even if he does it via illegal means. Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye is a classic example of an unlikeable hero. He’s lazy and a complainer. Frankly, I hated Catcher in the Rye in middle school when we read it. But that’s just me and it’s neither here nor there.
A lot of articles I read on the topic of the unlikable hero suggest that we like these figures because we enjoy their flaws. There is a fascination with darkness that intrigues us. While I might be inclined to agree (who doesn’t like a bit of darkness?), I still go back to the whole telling the story from the perspective of the villain concept. Perhaps this is another way to address that tactic. Every outsider is considered a villain. But if you tell the story from that perspective, then they don’t seem so evil anymore. You get their side of the story if you will. It seems that the unlikable hero is a twist on this concept. He or she is not exactly a hero, but they’re not exactly the villain either. The unlikeable hero occupies some undefined gray area between bed, bath and beyond. This gray area is the place where invention occurs.
I’m not sure I’ve found an answer to the burning question of why the unlikable hero? But I feel like I’ve gained more of an understanding about their existence and what the writer, at least, is going for when he or she creates such a character and chooses to tell his or her story.