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Lithium The mystique of unlikable characters

Jan. 8, 2021
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Overheated and knee-deep in a classic summer slump, I stumbled upon Fleabag in late July of 2019. I had no real idea what the show was about, just that the titular character had a peculiar first name. Like any bored consumer, I flew through the first two seasons in just a couple of days.

And thus began my obsession. I brought Fleabag up to anyone and everyone that was willing to listen. I had fallen into a deep, all-consuming love affair with Fleabag’s character. I admired her brashness, her wit, and her indecision. Her character was irrevocably real—a specific archetype of sincerity I felt like I hadn’t seen before. 

But in pushing my obsession onto the people around me, I noticed that people would constantly tell me she had a certain trait. She was unlikable: greedy, irresponsible, impulsive, transgressive. “She’s the perfect example of what you shouldn’t aspire to be,” one friend told me passionately. 

I didn’t understand the pushback. Sure, it’s easy to grasp that Fleabag is not a good person. But what stuck with me was that the things that were “unlikable” about her just made her feel more human. So began my deep dive into all things character analysis: I read article upon article dishing on her faults.

After I finished exploring the ins and outs of Fleabag’s character, I asked my friends to think about some fictional characters that struck them as unlikable. The answer had an unfortunately predictable common denominator: most, if not all, were women. Within minutes of asking around, I obtained a new list of female characters. In Fleabag’s company now stood Skyler White, Betty Draper, Rue Bennett, Debbie Gallagher, and Amy Dunne.

On paper, Fleabag is a sex addict, a compulsive liar, and a liability to her family and friends. Skyler White is hypocritical, nagging, and inept. Betty Draper is irresponsible, aloof, and cold. This anti-heroine trope has been an old-but-favorite card of various showrunners for a long time: we dislike Rue Bennett from Euphoria for her recklessness, Debbie Gallagher from Shameless for her grousing disposition, and Amy Dunne from Gone Girl for her elitism and conniving tendencies.

When I sat down to study these characters and their flaws, I began to feel dejected. Was I wrong for loving a flawed female character? I then felt affronted by another jarring question: why are we drawn to distinctly unlikable characters? Is it because they offer a means of romanticizing the ugliest parts of ourselves—the parts of ourselves we’re too afraid to show? 

Here’s the thing: if you can look past a character’s surface traits, there always lies a glorious painting of a character’s inexact and fundamental existence. Learning to embrace fictional characters’ flaws may be the simplest opportunity to exercise humility—and to learn to welcome such flaws in ourselves. We all are complex beings, and this sentiment isn’t restricted to those who live on our television screens. 

To be clear, I’m not here to argue the decency of anti-heroines. Fictional characters are literally crafted to be judged and deconstructed by viewers. But there’s strength in watching women get to be simultaneously likable and nefarious. I, for one, have encountered my fair share of Debbie-and-Betty-adjacent figures in my life. They’ve come in the form of teachers, camp counselors, and classmates. They’ve taught me to take solace in my individuality, be firm in my opinions, and stay levelheaded in confrontations. No matter your background, you’ve surely had figures in your life that have challenged and grounded you in similar ways. 

This goes to show just how essential flawed female characters are; such fictional imperfections provide a very legitimate means for viewers to self-reflect. Yes, these characters are designed to entertain, but the best characters are written to be picked apart. Just like us, these fictional characters have innate complexity. They are sex addicts. They lie compulsively. They are unstable, narcissistic, and gluttonous in their desires. 

But it’s important to note that while all unlikable characters must display some degree of complexity, gender complicates this phenomenon even more. In Hollywood, if a woman is a person of dual character, she is corrupt and evil. If a man displays duality in persona, his image is barely blemished—Walter White and Don Draper are just two examples of male characters that display traits equally or even more dislikable than their female counterparts but are still regarded as some of the greatest fictional characters of all time. 

All in all, fictional women with flaws are essential for those of us who don’t get to make out with hot priests orgive away an ex-husband’s meth money—not because of the escapist fantasies they provide, but because they offer necessary representation of the pieces of ourselves that we would rather forget. They are unwaveringly imperfect, and by observing such female characters, we’re presented with an opportunity to be kinder to ourselves and others. Yes, they are sex addicts. Yes, they lie compulsively. Yes, they are unstable, narcissistic, and gluttonous in their desires—but so am I. So are you.

Illustration by Emma Baynes