The “unlikable” character cycle

by look i have opinions

In discussions of good fiction, “unlikable character” usually means one of these two things*:

  1. I like the character, but I feel like I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t like a bad person who has bad motivations and/or makes bad choices.
  2. I can’t like the character, but I love and/or identify with the character.

So I had an interesting thought: maybe in a good piece of fiction, “unlikability” can actually make readers more invested in a character.

There was this famous psychology experiment where people who considered themselves basically honest were offered money to tell a small, subjective lie. Afterwards, they were surveyed on their motivations. The subjects who got $20 for lying were frank: “I lied for the money.” The subjects who got only $1 responded differently. They said it wasn’t really a lie; they defended it as true and seemed to really believe it. The experimenters’ conclusion was that, when people do something that causes cognitive dissonance, they try to attribute their actions to a motivation that will lessen that dissonance. The $20 subjects had a ready excuse for lying, so they didn’t feel the need to downplay the lie itself. Only the $1 subjects felt that need.

A good “unlikable” character is one that causes cognitive dissonance in readers. Once readers start caring about a character who upsets them, they feel the need to justify their emotional investment. They want the bad character to be secretly good, or at least secretly vulnerable, or at least too magnificent to be hated. They want the weak, foolish character to get it together. They struggle to justify the character’s mistakes because, like the underpaid psych subjects, they need to believe what they’re telling themselves.

This can be troubling behavior in real life** but it’s great in fiction, at least when it works. In order for it to work, the reader has to care about the character for some reason: the character wants something, the character is in deep trouble, the character has a one or two good traits. Not a big reason. Just enough to to set off the cycle of emotional investment and rationalization and more emotional investment.

*Edited to add: I forgot to mention the third meaning, “I don’t like or care about the character, but I enjoy a good train wreck,” which isn’t all that interesting from an emotional investment angle.

**I’m pretty sure this is how a lot of people get drawn into abusive relationships, repeatedly fall for “bad guys” or “bad girls,” etc., which raises the perennial question of how fiction affects readers’ real-life thinking and behavior. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m assuming it’s ethically okay for authors to prey on their readers’ psychological weaknesses to get them to keep reading. More about morality later.