If you’ve ever caught yourself screeching at a book, perhaps holding it at arms length and reading with one eye in utter frustration, then you might just know what we’re talking about here. Who is that character that really just wants a shake and a good talking to? We asked the Write Yorkshire scribble to call out their lists...
There are some spoilers (mostly for much older books) in this Q&A. Have a quick scroll to the bottom to check the list of titles with plot spoilers if you're worried.
When I’m lost in a book, I don’t often get angry with the characters. I’ll fall in love with them a bit, or feel sorry for them, or they’ll make me laugh. Getting annoyed is a rarity, so this question made me think about why that might be, and what was so bad about the characters who really harshed my reading mellow?
First on the naughty step is Beth March from Little Women. I know, I’m a bad person and should burn in hell. But oh my goodness, was ever a character so wet? She was so good, so pious and such a complete suck-up to Marmee that I came away from the book thinking she’d only been created to make me feel bad about myself. I’m afraid I sympathised with Amy when she didn’t want to share her Christmas breakfast; I wouldn’t have wanted to, either. I did cry when Beth died - probably more out of guilt for all the eye-rolling than any real sadness. I thought the books livened up immeasurably once she’d stopped martyring herself all over the place.
Verdict: Beth is too good to be true. I don’t relate to her, I don’t believe in her, and therefore she is on the naughty bench, sitting next to the terminally irritating Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol.
Next on my literary hit list is Edmund from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I remember reading about his betrayal of his siblings with a slack jaw - I could take his rottenness to Lucy, that was pretty par for the course among all the siblings I knew; but betraying his family and their allies to the White Witch? For Turkish Delight of all things? The one sweet that would be left in the selection box until March and then thrown away? I didn’t buy it.
Verdict: Edmund is the anti-Beth. He’s too bad to be true, and he has horrible taste in sweets.
My final candidate for a literary tongue-lashing is Eugene, a character from the outstanding novel Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It’s difficult to say why I hate him so much without putting a huge spoiler on the blog - suffice to say, if I ever met him off the page, I might not be responsible for my actions. The particular scene I’m thinking of had me literally groaning out loud and gnashing my teeth; I wanted to march into the book, grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake him.
Verdict: Eugene isn’t a character I love to hate. I find no enjoyment in his existence whatsoever, mainly because he’s so believable, so well-drawn, and his actions are annoyingly understandable. He’s not evil, he’s just a bloody idiot like most of us, which is testimony to Stuart’s amazing writing of characters.
So there we are. Some characters annoy me because they are just too sweet to be wholesome; others annoy me because they are bad to the point of caricature. But the one that has annoyed me most got under my skin precisely because he was all too believably human.
Okay, I think I have three for this. The first two come from children’s books.
First of all, every single adult character in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Stop counting all your stars, stop showing off, stop writing your geography books and go experience the world. All of those adults, doing their silly adult jobs. The only adult in the book I relate to is the drunk who wants to forget the silly ways of the world. ‘Grown-ups really are very strange’, after all.
The next is Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Awful boy and I won’t be taking any criticism on this. He was a bratty little thing who was needlessly mean to his younger sister, Lucy. Oh, and of course he was responsible for the arrest of Mr. Tumnus, the White Witch’s near victory, and Aslan’s execution. When all is resolved and the Pevensie children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia, Edmund should have been banished. I despised him when I was a child and I shall despise him until I die.
The third is more recent and I’m not sure it qualifies as a “telling-off”. Agnes, the alcoholic mother in Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain infuriated me. In what was a difficult read (but a phenomenal book), Agnes Bain neglected and abandoned her vulnerable child repeatedly. But I don’t want to tell her off. I’d have liked her to get her shit together for the sake of her children, but really I just wanted to give her a hug. At the end of the day, she was an addict and while she might have made some questionable choices, her downfall was not necessarily her fault. The people who influenced her need telling off, the father of her children needs telling off, her own parents need telling off. Maggie Thatcher needed more than a telling off for the mass unemployment, poverty and disillusionment that devastated the working classes after her Conservative government wreaked havoc on their lives.
This is the first question I’ve really, really struggled with. I even resorted to standing aimlessly in front of my bookcases, hoping that one might jump out. The truth is, there are a lot of infuriating or hateful characters out there but almost every time I think of one, I remember that they were integral to the growth of a character I loved; or got their just desserts in the end; or evolved into someone awesome; or redeemed themselves. Or even worse, I find myself empathising with them, and understanding why they are the way they are.
I also find it difficult to continue to hate a character in book one when I grow to love them in book three or four. Edmund from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a strong candidate (which speaks to the strength of Lewis’s writing, given how many times he’s been mentioned in this Q&A) until I remembered that I loved him in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
And then there’s Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice. When a book has a title like that, there’s a good chance there are going to be some challenging characters and Austen did a great job. As a teenager I really hated Mr Collins but as an adult, he makes me laugh more every time I re-read the book. We’re lucky he was so absurd, otherwise Elizabeth might just have agreed to marry him. And I know he’s a mortifying dancer, but I sort of personally feel his pain on that one.
Lydia and Mrs Bennett fall into the same category. Mrs Bennett’s appalling behaviour makes me laugh at and love Mr Bennett’s attitude all the more (and I absolutely adore him); and Lydia, infuriating though she is, takes the very dangerous Mr Wickham off the market, thus doing all of womankind an enormous favour. If I had to tell anyone in Pride and Prejudice off, it would be Jane and Mr Bingley - they’d have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they’d just spoken to each other about their relationship, instead of literally everyone else.
When I thought about the books with characters I genuinely disliked, they tended to be memoir or auto-fiction, and I didn’t feel quite right taking those apart, because while they are characters (real people become characters as soon as they hit the page), they’re based on real people. It seems a bit too mean. And I also don’t feel like I have the right to comment, because I didn’t finish most of those books.
The best books have at least one or two unlikeable characters. And the best authors make sure those characters serve a purpose, get their comeuppance or arc through personal growth or redemption. Perhaps that’s why I find contenders for my personal literary hit list more in the nonfiction section; real life doesn’t always conform to a satisfying arc, does it?
This one required some serious thinking. There's so many characters I've met along the way that I'd love to give a good talking to, but often they redeem themselves, and so are at least half forgiven. There are definitely a few who haven't redeemed themselves and who most certainly will not be excused though!
The first being August, from Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. I don't care that he got what he deserved in the end, I would still like to go a round with him for everything he put those poor animals through. Every time I read that book, and it is one of my favourites, it absolutely breaks my heart and makes my blood boil at the horrific things he does to the animals. It's a credit to Gruen's writing, but I absolutely despise him as a character. He has zero good qualities and is rotten to the core. I was more joyful than I should have been when he met his gory demise!
Second has to be Daisy from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. This one might be over said, so I apologise, but she just irks me so much. I don't believe she ever would have left Tom, or her daughter, for one second. She was just bored and wanted to play, but she dragged so many other people into it and ruined lives. I know Gatsby wasn't exactly moral but he didn't deserve to be blamed or to die. Daisy did so many terrible things, and she got away with almost every single one, while two other people ended up dead. All for her to still be absolutely miserable and dissatisfied, just as she was at the start of the narrative. She sucks and, quite honestly, I hate her. She definitely deserves a good talking to. Or possibly arresting...
Thirdly, Pumpkin from Memoirs of a Geisha. I'm not angry with her, I'm disappointed. Her betrayal of Sayuri just breaks my heart. Neither are perfect, but Sayuri trusted Pumpkin and tried to be as kind to her as she could, even covering for her, and she still got it thrown back in her face. All Sayuri needed was a friend to lean on and she couldn't even trust the only one she'd known since she arrived in Kyoto. I'd just love to sit Pumpkin down and ask her what good it did her? Jealousy and cruelty did nothing good for her in the end, but friendship could have. She really had the potential to be a better person than the people who taught her, and she absolutely knew better, but she followed in their footsteps regardless. The disappointment still hurts now.
Potential spoilers: Water for Elephants (Nic and Stacy); Pride and Prejudice (Liz); Shuggie Bain (Nic and Harrison); The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Nic and Harrison); Little Women (Nic); The Great Gatsby (Stacy); Memoirs of a Geisha (Stacy); The Little Prince (Harrison).
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