Unlikeable characters can carry a story better than a likeable character. There’s something about following them through the story that interests us.
What makes an unlikeable character?
I think this is different for everyone. The fact that some people like stories I don’t is proof of that. For the most part, there are two characteristics that make a character unlikeable to me. They are narcissistic and they use people – these are two different characteristics.
Unlikeable characters, the balance
Let’s talk about two unlikeable characters, Dexter and House.
Dr. House is narcissistic to the extreme. He doesn’t seem to understand the concept that people have their own needs and goals. He doesn’t just tell the bald truth, he does it in such a way that it hurts more than it needs to. The balance is that he is effective in diagnosing, and in using his team to diagnose, odd but deadly diseases. The end result – most of the time – is a life saved.
Dexter is a serial killer. He doesn’t simply kill, he tortures and he gets pleasure from his victim’s terror and pain. The balance for this character is that he only kills serial killers and he helps to take them off the street.
It’s a matter of taste
I found Dr. House entertaining but I only watched one episode of Dexter. The reason is that Dr. House’s end result was saving lives. When he didn’t save the life, he stayed true to character. He seemed to care, but it was about the disease, not about the person. He was affronted by the fact that the puzzle beat him.
Dexter, doesn’t stay true to character. He’s a sociopath, but he cares about his sister. That’s a character break for me. If there are no killers around for him to torture, would he find other victims?