Opinion | You can like a piece of media without liking its characters


Image via Warner Media Press Kit, photograph by Merrick Morton/ HBO

Bill Hader plays Barry Berkman in “Barry.”

By Rachel Soloff, Opinions Editor

I recently read the book “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and I loved it. The book follows two 20-something women who get involved with a married couple, and one of the women enters an affair with the husband of this couple. When I went on Goodreads to look at other people’s reviews of the novel prior to reading it, I found a similar phrase repeated throughout them — “The characters are so unlikeable.”

While for many, this may turn them away from the book, it made me more interested. In real life, people aren’t inherently good or evil — most are a bit of both. When characters are not just the good guys or the bad guys, a story can become more realistic, having readers or watchers look inward to see flaws in themselves or flaws in society. “Conversations with Friends” is not about an evil woman trying to break up a marriage — it’s about a woman going through mental health struggles who did a not-so-great thing, something that a lot of people can relate to. 

If a character in a movie, book or television show is not likable, there might be something else that that piece of media is trying to tell a viewer. It might be telling them to look at themselves and the ways they relate to the worst parts of a character. It could also be showing the reader how most of the world exists in gray areas, not just the black-and-white ways it is usually portrayed. It may even just show us that there are unlikable characters in our reality too.

Some of the best pieces of media in recent years have allowed their viewers to think about morality and the ways in which our society warps it. “Barry,” the HBO show that just wrapped its third and best season to date, follows a hitman-turned-actor who tries to stray from his life of crime but is pulled back into it at every turn. 

In the first few seasons, we feel for Barry. He’s trying to improve himself, but it feels like he can’t help but be sucked into this life, especially as he is a former Marine who seems to be suffering from PTSD. As the seasons progress, however, Barry becomes less and less likable. He screams at his girlfriend at her place of work, he threatens his acting mentor and he kills less out of necessity and more out of randomness and untethered emotion. But when he gets his comeuppance at the end of season three, it’s hard to figure out how we, the audience, are supposed to feel about this — and that is the point. 

Morally gray characters allow us to look at society in a mirror, while stereotypically “good” and “evil” characters provide a funhouse mirror reflection of what life really is. There are no superheroes or villains in real life — there are people who do both good and bad things. Getting past the likability of characters is the first step to finding media that allows people to look deeper within and even change the ways in which society functions.

Many times, characters who do bad things only do them out of necessity. Sometimes they do things out of selfishness as well — this is typically why people find characters unlikable. Analyzing these reasons is just one reason that having unlikable characters can make a story better. 

Not to sound like your tenth grade English teacher, but searching for themes presented in a piece of media through the actions of its characters is one of the most exciting things about reading a new book or watching a new show. If all characters were just likable all of the time, nothing would make a compelling story. Human beings relate to the struggle of making hard decisions — it’s one of the only things we all have in common. 

When done well, having a piece of media with unlikable characters creates a realistic setting. One of the reasons I enjoyed “Conversations with Friends,” despite the warnings that its characters were unlikable, was because I could see the scenarios happening in the novel occurring in my world. I know people who do selfish things like the characters Nick and Frances, but I also know people who deep down are good despite making bad decisions. 

One thing I always struggle with when starting a new series or reading a new book is when the actions of the characters take me out of the setting because they do something that feels unrealistic. While this obviously isn’t the case for all media, as sometimes it’s fun to suspend disbelief, the stories that have affected me most are the ones that feel like they could happen in my real world that I can therefore derive the most meaning from when applying them to my own life and situations. 

Instead of choosing media because of the merits of its characters, try branching out and looking at things that challenge your sense of right and wrong, that make you think deeply about big concepts such as morality. Next time you open up Netflix or go to the library, reach for the books or movies that will challenge you with unlikable characters, and see what you gain from them. If anything, you’ll be able to write a review about the characters’ unlikability when you finish. 

Rachel Soloff writes primarily about the entertainment industry and how lame antisemites are. Write to her at [email protected].