“The characters in this book are so annoying!”
Complaints such as the one above railing infest reader comment sections at Goodreads and other book-related sites. Why do so many characters in books cause nothing but irritation? As with anything else, the topic is a complex one and immediately invites a plethora of questions.
- What is meant by the term annoying?
- What makes the character annoying?
- Did the writer intentionally or unintentionally create the character to be annoying?
The second question is far more difficult to answer. If the character is annoying simply for the reasons touched upon above, then we need look no further than the author. However, experience tells me this is not what some readers mean when they complain about a protagonist or character being annoying. And this is where the issue becomes more nuanced. I am generally perplexed by readers affixing the annoying label to well-written characters and I begin to wonder if the moaning about annoyance is merely a matter of personal taste or if the grievance is based on some higher objective level of analysis. Some readers are irked by characters of the political or personal views the characters express or represent. Others find it maddening to read about people they would do everything in their power to avoid in real life. There are readers who find characters annoying because they consider the character boring, tiresome, unexciting, or morally flawed. The inability to relate to a character is another common complaint. This is significant because statements like “I found the protagonist annoying” tend to be idiosyncratic in nature more often than not. In other words, they reveal far more about the reader than they do about the annoying qualities a given character may or may not possess.
This brings us to the third question – intentionality. Many great writers have purposefully created characters that could readily be classified as annoying. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Goethe’s Werther, and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man spring to mind as examples. To claim that these characters are unintentionally annoying would be to insult these giants of literature. So why did these revered writers purposefully craft such flawed, weak, irksome characters? Characters they knew would drive their readers to the very edge of exasperation? To address that question in the manner it deserves would require an essay many times longer than this blog post, and I have no intention of delving into a detailed analysis here. Instead, allow me to offer the following: These writers created such characters because they wanted to make us uncomfortable. They want to tug us out of our comfort zones and make us confront aspects of humanity we sincerely believe we do not possess.
As readers, we are annoyed by Hamlet’s indecisiveness, hesitancy, and refusal to act. We silently scream at him to just do it! Take a sword and stab your father’s murderer through the heart! But as you sit there stewing in your smug, self-consciousness ask yourself if you would act any differently. When we read of Werther’s melancholy, heartbreak, and world weariness, we are made uncomfortable by the awkwardness and intimacy of it all. We demand Werther stop being such an overemotional milksop and pull himself together. Yet as these frustrations seep through us, we conveniently forget about those times in our lives when we were Werthers too. Through the Underground Man, we are drawn into a vile world of resentment and malevolence. By forcing us to navigate the treacherous landscape of his soul, the Underground Man forces us to consider the treachery within our own souls. This naturally instills discomfort, and I would wager this discomfort registers as annoyance in most readers’ minds. “I could never be like that,” we assure ourselves as we close the book glad to be free of Dostoevsky’s abomination. Though readers might be able to identify with Hamlet and Werther, it takes a special kind of reader to identify with Underground Man. Yet, if the novella is read properly and seriously, you will not only identify with Underground Man, but also sympathize with him and, in the end, realize that there is an Underground Man very much alive in you.
I spent a great deal of time thinking about all of this as I wrote my novel The City of Earthly Desire because I knew the protagonist I was creating would possess some infuriating attributes. Though he is talented, driven, and academically intelligent, he is also lovesick, foolish, and petty. He makes idiotic decisions, betrays his finer instincts, and is blind to reality throughout the bulk of the story. As I fleshed the character out in my mind, I wondered if I would succeed in making him sympathetic. I worried about this because – as anyone with at least one “How to Write a Bestseller” book on their bookshelf or MFA degree in creative writing program can tell you – readers must be able to identify with the main character or they will not find the narrative engaging. Put another way, readers have to care about the protagonist or else the story is toast. But the more I thought about it, the less I cared for this notion. Some characters are there to make you wince in discomfort. That’s all there is to it.
And that’s troublesome for many people. As was the case in the nineteenth century, we live in a time where the vast majority of people in the West present themselves as gleaming pillars of virtue and goodness and absolute experts in the art of self-mastery. Yes, the world is teeming with righteous and just people who all miraculously have their shit together. And what could be more annoying than encountering characters in books who do not espouse the spotless virtue and stable comportment we espouse? They are nuisances, such characters. Best avoided at all costs.
There are different kinds of annoying characters in literature. Some annoy because they are underdone, ill-conceived, or poorly crafted. This kind of annoyance is understandable and forgivable. Nevertheless, I have found that for many readers, annoying characters are those who force readers to not only look upon the awkward and dark aspects of human nature, but also acknowledge that these dark and awkward aspects very much exist within the readers themselves.
Encountering something like that can be very annoying indeed.