Top 10 most dislikable characters in fiction

From Tom Wolfe’s ‘master of the universe’ to George Eliot’s vengeful pedant, these are some of the hardest characters in literature to love

At reader events to promote my novels, I find that one question crops up more often than any other: ‘Why do you write such dislikable characters?’ Well, I usually reply, swallowing my defensiveness, don’t all novelists write characters who are dislikable to someone, given that likability is entirely subjective? If niceness is a spectrum, then we’re all on it, for better or worse.

Take Kit and Melia Roper in The Other Passenger. The debt-ridden millennial friends of wealthy Gen Xers Jamie and Clare, they are envious of the older couple’s lifestyle and prepared to take all sorts of risks to raise their own status. You might be sympathetic to their plight (I know I am) or you might take a harder line, but chances are your view on their likability is far more to do with their personalities than their social standing – or even their criminal actions.

In other words, dislikable is not the same as irredeemable, and for this reason, there is no place on my list for any love-to-hate Tom Ripleys or morbidly mesmerising Humbert Humberts. With the exception perhaps of Uriah Heep, there’s no reason to call the authorities on any of my top 10.

1. Clara Stackhouse in The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
In a chilling novel of uxoricide, it’s the killjoy not the killer who finds herself qualifying for this list. Clara is the beautiful but neurotic wife of the well-heeled and good-natured lawyer Walter Stackhouse. Determined to make his life a misery, she isolates him from his friends, disapproves of his hard drinking (always a sign of a stick-in-the-mud in a Highsmith novel), refuses to have children (perfectly laudable now, not so much in 1950s American suburbia) and is even hard-hearted towards her own mother. Modern readers might forgive her on account of her devotion to her pet dog Jeff, but it’s clear Highsmith did not.

2. Kenneth Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
Secretive, egotistical and with an “exotic drabness” about him, Kenneth Widmerpool is subjected to an extended rise and fall across the 12-volume series. Early on, Powell alerts us to one of the key characteristics of the truly repellent: small-mindedness. “It doesn’t do to read too much,” Widmerpool warns. “You get to look at life with a false perspective.” And we get to look at him as a fish – he has a “piscine” demeanour, Powell tells us, which should put an end to any rogue positive vibes we feel towards him.

3. The other children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
One way of signalling who your hero is in a children’s book is to make every other child deeply detestable. The Oompa Loompas explain far better than I can the vices of Charlie’s rivals: Veruca Salt is “the little brute”; Augustus Gloop is “unutterably vile”; and Violet Beauregarde is “some repulsive little bum”. Square-eyed Mike Teavee is the least offensive, so we’ll be kind and spare him.

4. Uriah Heep in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
“Too humble to be called a friend”, the obsequious, clammy-palmed Uriah Heep is one of the few characters in literature whose name instantly evokes a whole personality type. We’ve all encountered a Uriah Heep – though hopefully recognisable for his or her sycophancy rather than any true malice. Since this is Dickens, the hateful get their just deserts and Heep is last seen in jail, awaiting transportation overseas.

Sally Knyvette (Polly Cockpurse) and Annabelle Apsion (Lady Brenda Last) in the Palace theatre, Watford’s adaptation of A Handful Of Dust.
Sally Knyvette (Polly Cockpurse) and Annabelle Apsion (Lady Brenda Last) in the Palace theatre, Watford’s adaptation of A Handful Of Dust. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

5. Lady Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I still remember the exact moment when reading Waugh’s classic as a teenager that I twigged that the blithe-spirited Lady Brenda was in fact repugnant. On hearing of the death of John, she assumes it is her lover and is distraught, but on clarification that the John in question is in fact her young son, she responds, “Oh, thank God.” Brenda belongs to a particularly dismaying subset of dislikables that also includes The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan: only after you’re charmed into submission by their joie de vivre is the true emptiness of their souls revealed.

6. Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
The vapid and self-centred Mildred downgrades Philip’s life single-handed in Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece. How the reader rejoices when this soul-sucker is sidelined in favour of kindly Norah! Then, just as Philip is set to salvage something of his pride – and his income – she reappears, and the whole sad dance starts over. Maugham leaves her eventual fate open, but a more overtly bleak option is offered in the 1934 movie, in which a young Bette Davis nails every note of her callousness and self-pity.

7. Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch by George Eliot
Long before the notion of a feminist reading of the classics entered my young head, I had identified Edward Casaubon as a threat to female ambition. A pompous, dusty pedant, he was the 19th-century ancestor of the men I met in my first job, who called young women “popsies” and cut us out of the interesting projects. So jealous of his young wife Dorothea that he even plots posthumous revenge on her, Casaubon is as mean spirited as he is tedious. What’s not to dislike?

8. Alistair Robertson in The Cry by Helen FitzGerald
A PR man whose job is to “quash shitshows”, Alistair possesses a ruthlessness that extends all too smoothly to family matters, cleverly exposed in the narratives of his ex-wife Alexandra and new younger model Joanna. I love FitzGerald’s willingness to embrace the ignoble in her characters. When we met, I asked her about the pressure to write likable characters, and she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever written one. I’m not sure I’ve ever met one.”

9. Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
I’m veering into love-to-hate territory here on account of remembering the 80s firsthand, but I’m confident younger readers will loathe Sherman McCoy unreservedly. He’s a bond trader who lives on Park Avenue, a self-styled Master of the Universe who is “proud of his chin” and has, by his own admission, “no conscience”. Following an unfortunate automobile incident in the Bronx involving his mistress Maria, Sherman finds himself on the highway to Comeuppance – and no one describes that particular journey quite so rhapsodically as Wolfe.

10. Topher St Clair-Bridges/Tiger-Blue Esposito in One by One by Ruth Ware
In Ware’s wonderfully atmospheric locked-room mystery, set in a snowed-in Alpine cabin, she assembles a cast of young tech types hoping to become very rich indeed thanks to a buyout offer. If that isn’t enough in itself to rouse your dislike, then the names of the shareholders should tip us off as to who might irritate in the pages ahead, Topher and Tiger-Blue among them. You can almost taste the author’s relish as she decides which of these entitled horrors to dispatch first.

Louise Candlish

The GuardianTramp

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