Authors, have you really considered the risk it is to choose an unlikeable character as the lens through which your readers view your story?
Whether this character is a first person narrator or the character your third-person narrator most closely follows, giving access to his or her thoughts and plans, the choice to make this person your point of view character can work.
So many great tales have unsavory or odd choices as narrator. I don’t want you to finish this post thinking that I’m saying, “Don’t tell your story through an unlikeable character.” That’s not at all my point.
What would American literature be without Holden Caulfield or Ignatius G.Reilly?
You can definitely make great use of such a character…. Just remember to contemplate this question first:
Is making this character my point of view character going to help readers understand and connect with him or her? Or is exposing the character’s inner workings going to make him or her even more grotesque and off-putting?
That last scenario is a real possibility, and worth considering. Not every gruff or awful character gets better and more “like us” the closer we get to him or her. And when that is the case, the more distance the better.
I think the Sherlock Holmes stories are a great example. Why is Watson our narrator? Why not Holmes?
Beyond the obvious answer–the fact that Holmes is the genius, the one with all the answers, and that if we were in Holmes’s head, we would have no mystery to read–lies another fact. Holmes is incredibly off-putting.
I love the BBC version of Holmes portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch because it reveals some very stark truths about Holmes that come through in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. There is something inhuman about Holmes.
For instance, in one story, he pretends to be someone else and makes a housemaid fall in love with his alter ago, just to get information. He has no qualms whatsoever about abandoning her once he solves his case.
He is cold and calculating. He doesn’t understand or feel emotion, for all his ingenuity and drive. And that’s terrifying.
Holmes has been able to become iconic partly because of how he is presented to us: through Watson’s eyes. Watson appreciates him for who he is, and is always willing to admit where Holmes is lacking, where he isn’t perfect: something Holmes himself can never really do.
Watson tweaks the way we see we see Holmes so that we can admire his strengths without focusing too much on the aspects of him that, on further inspection, would make our skin crawl.
So just consider who your character is before you let your characters get close. Will they like what they see?