The Case For Unlikable Characters in Literary Fiction: Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim 6

by Salvatore Pane

The final volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comic series dropped last week. Entitled Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, the last chapter of the six-year long saga concludes appropriately enough with Scott Pilgrim’s finest hour. For those unaware of the series, it’s about a Canadian slacker who falls for a mysterious American woman who has a legion of evil ex-boyfriends that have to be defeated in order to win her heart. Luckily, Scott’s “the best fighter in the territories” which leads to a bunch of insane Dragonball Z-esque battles. The books are composed of entirely realistic scenes of twenty-somethings (drawn in lovable anime style) getting drunk, having sex, and being generally aimless. Often these scenes are punctuated with a bizarre, otherworldly battle lifted directly from old Nintendo games. But don’t let this concept fool you. The Scott Pilgrim books are deep. The league of evil ex-boyfriends is an obvious metaphor for the baggage we carry with us after each new relationship, and Scott’s quest to rid himself of these former suitors is as much about him learning to become a better person as it is about the crazy fighting (Side note: I once loaned the SP books out to a girl I was dating and she claimed to love the first volume but not the second. When asked why, she said the second didn’t have as many engaging battles. To reiterate, anyone reading SP for the fights is totally missing the point. It’s like going into Inglorious Bastards only for over-the-top action set pieces).

But this post is not a forum for me to air out my grievances about readers who don’t “get” Scott Pilgrim. Instead, I want to talk about Scott’s journey and what it’s actually managed to teach me about literary fiction. The first thing you need to know is that Scott Pilgrim, until maybe the final 30 pages of the last volume, is an utter douchebag. Forget how Michael Cera plays him in the trailer. The Scott Pilgrim of the books is arrogant, narcissistic, selfish and utterly terrified of responsibility. When the series opens, he’s an unemployed 23-year-old dating a high school student. He sucks.

I watched a video review of the first volume of SP recently where the reviewer hated on the book precisely because Scott is so unlikable. Surely, we’ve all heard this before. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a workshop where somebody doesn’t bring up the fact that the characters aren’t likable. I don’t know about you, but this has never been a problem for me. When I think of my favorite characters in literature, I think of Frank and April Wheeler from Richard Yates’ masterful Revolutionary Road. They’re utterly flawed human beings who do terrible things, and they’re not particularly sympathetic. They’re the types of characters I relate to most. And maybe that says more about my own self-image than anything but when presented with a character who’s inherently decent or wonderful, I recoil. I can’t relate and often don’t care about their problems. Show me a character at their worst. That I understand.

There are inherent pleasures in reading about unlikable characters. Their stories usually go in two directions. They either A) redeem themselves in the style of Scott Pilgrim and become fuller, more complete humans or B) completely fail every one around them ala the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road. Option A is the type of story we as humans need to experience continually over our lives. Who doesn’t want to believe in self-improvement, that despite all of our very human failings, we can become new and better versions of ourselves? That’s what Bryan Lee O’Malley delivers in the Scott Pilgrim books. Scott’s slow and steady growth is a reminder that we too are capable of becoming better than what we presently are. Option B is the darker world view (I can’t imagine anyone who would argue that Yates has a brighter vision of humanity than O’Malley). Option B tells us that self-improvement is an illusion, that no one can ever change for the better, that we as a species are in a constant state of decay. This is also reassuring in a bizarre way, because if it’s true, then we have no real agency, and therefore, no true responsibility to become better people.

And what do we get with likable characters? Usually victim stories. Charles Baxter wrote an essay a few years back (I can’t find it, or I’d link to it) talking about how much he hates novels and stories where things just keep happening to the protagonist, where the protagonist continually reacts. These are the types of stories I hate, the ones where main characters refuse to get their hands dirty. I want books where people fail. I want stories where characters make bad decisions. For me, those are the works of fiction with the most complex emotional centers, the fullest landscapes of meaning. As strange as it might sound to some, Bryan Lee O’Malley accomplishes this over six volumes of graphic fiction. His work stands as a reminder of why we desperately need stories about flawed human beings, because in the end, they are the closest we have to mirror images of ourselves.