The Hidden Value of Unlikeable Characters

The Hidden Value of Unlikeable Characters

This week, we are pleased to feature Books@Work professor Joshua D. Phillips, as he reflects on an experience in a recent program. Joshua is an instructor at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine.

During our first semester of graduate school, my class read a book that humorously wove together experiences of professorial life in the academy. The main character infrequently used language that was dated and culturally abrasive, but the stories about academic life were informative for those of us just starting our journey.

To help deter lengthy discussions about inappropriate gendered pronouns and cultural misunderstandings, our professor offered the following wisdom:

“You are going to read a lot of stuff during graduate school. If you read everything through a hyper-critical lens, you will never find anything useful because you can always find a reason to dismiss everything ever written. My advice is that if you have to read it, you might as well try to find something useful in it. Otherwise, you will spend the next four years picking apart every detail at the expense of overlooking useful knowledge.”

Instead of getting caught up in character flaws, readers should mark the indiscretions and move on. I took these words seriously and, to this day, try to engage with texts through a “generous lens.” This doesn’t mean that texts are immune from severe critiques. A “generous lens” simply means that readers first recognize that texts are a finite byproduct of time, place, culture and personalities. Before I engage in dismissive criticism, I try to first explore what the author and characters might provide a willing reader.

This approach to reading literature proved useful in my first Books@Work experience. The book we read, Into the Wild, tracks the true story of new college graduate Christopher McCandless as he hitchhikes the country under a false name for two years. From the beginning, we know that McCandless ends up dead in the Alaskan wilderness.

Sydney Laurence, Mt. McKinley, mid-twentieth century, Anchorage Museum [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Understandably, people have strong feelings about McCandless from page one. Young suburbanites generally love him as a modern homage to Kerouac who lived the way he wanted to live. Conversely, Alaskans and parents generally view him as immature and reckless. Readers reluctantly tread through the book knowing that McCandless’ naiveté will catch up to him in the end. They might want to reason with him, but what’s the point in engaging with a hard headed idealist?

There’s little gray area when it comes to opinions about McCandless. And I, too, struggle with the literary depiction of him. I have read Into the Wild several times over the past 10 years and each time I’ve become less enthralled with his character’s spontaneity. His once “carefree” lifestyle suddenly seems “careless.” Yet, the story hasn’t changed. I have changed.

Recognizing my own emotional evolution causes me, inevitably, to consider whether I shouldn’t treat the character with more empathy. In the case of McCandless, the Books@Work readers and I harkened back to our early twenties when thinking about him. While a two-year sojourn to Alaska might not have been everyone’s rallying-cry, it is safe to assume that we all had metaphorical Alaskas, where we hoped to escape and find solace. For some, our Alaskas are still calling.

By drawing parallels between McCandless’ wants and our own desires, together we began to understand his motivations even if we disagreed with his actions. Likewise, by recounting the hardships and failures throughout our own lives, we were able to imagine ourselves making similar mistakes during times of emotional vulnerability. Chances are, we’ve all made foolish choices. The only difference is in degree.

Like us, fictional and nonfictional characters are imperfect. Unlike us, their imperfections are laid bare before the world, awaiting judgment. To get caught up in a disagreeable oddity at the expense of missing the invaluable depths a story has to offer is to, quite pointedly, “fail to see the forest for the trees.”

Understandably, not every character will profoundly change our lives, but, as in the Books@Work seminar, we can choose to become vulnerable to those unlikable characters that challenge our perspectives and beliefs. Furthermore, we ought to recognize that our reactions toward characters will change throughout the seasons of our lives. We might not like McCandless today, but we might need him 20 years from now – or perhaps we needed him 20 years ago.

Instead of dismissing characters outright, we can look for the lessons they might teach us about ourselves and those around us. Likewise, disagreeable people we encounter every day have deeper backstories than brief moments of unpleasant interactions. By striving to empathize with those whom we initially disdain, we understand that our insights into their behaviors are oftentimes incomplete. By empathizing with McCandless’ character, we can empathize with his real-life humanity. In turn, we recognize the complexity of others, and, hopefully, provide a little more empathy to those around us.

Image: John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, Detroit Museum of Art, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

How Reading Fiction Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

Recognizing Others and Ourselves Through Literature

Creative Discomfort: Exploring Unfamiliar Literature

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Joshua D. Phillips

Joshua D. Phillips

Joshua D. Phillips is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State Brandywine.