let’s discuss: is there such a thing as a “problematic” character???

Yeah, bring on the controversy! Just be polite about it! Anyways, today we’re discussing “problematic” characters.

But what exactly do people mean when they say problematic?

There isn’t really a dictionary definition for problematic in the modern context of literature so I’m winging it and stating on the record that when people refer to problematic characters, what they really mean are characters who break the moral law and are romanticized for it.

Now, I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial but eh who cares. Jude and Cardan from The Cruel Prince are not problematic.

all of you @ me rn

Jude and Cardan demonstrate toxic qualities, yes. They attempt to kill each other on multiple occasions, and are generally cunning and cruel. However, what everyone misses when they accuse these two of being “problematic” is context. The world of The Folk of the Air is based on fae lore, which means that fae are generally not very nice people. Jude, having grown up in this world, would naturally feel inspired to take after them. Just because they both are toxic according to our real-life standards doesn’t make them problematic.

Of course, an issue would arise if someone were using The Cruel Prince as a guidebook on conscience but I’m pretty sure everyone who reads it knows that this is a fictionalized relationship, between fictionalized characters, with fictionalized backstories. It wouldn’t fly in real life as any sort of actual romance. Anyone who reads the type of fanfic with The Mafia Plotline (y’all know what I’m talking about) knows that everything in the story has been romanticized to fit a certain narrative. And if you think that it would be excusable in real life…then you’re not old enough to read it.

but that begs the question: are there problematic characters?

In my opinion…it would be a rare case. More often I would say that there are problematic authors, such as Rainbow Rowell. It’s not so much that her characters are biased than it is that her entire book is biased because of her prejudice against Asians. An issue can certainly arise when an author’s biases are reflected in their characters. However, in almost every fictional story, you are working with an author’s bias. It’s not romantic if someone kills for you in reality but in a fantasy world where enemies-to-lovers is the most popular trope in a romanticized scenario? Yeah, okay, I can see it. Makes sense.

I’m arguing that awful actions are excusable. What I’m saying is that too often I hear that a character is problematic when they are either meant to be problematic, or the reader is missing context. Or perhaps they are mixing up plot devices with character arcs. After all, sometimes a character does something horrible because the plot requires them too. You don’t have to like every main character. Some main characters in fiction are woefully unlikable, and do horrible things. They’re just following the character arc the author has laid out for them. That’s the biggest point I’m trying to get at here: when we call a character problematic, do we really mean unlikable? Do we mean toxic by realistic standards? Or do we genuinely mean that the character is being terrible for no good reason, the behavior is being excused, and it’s not meant to be some sort of weird self-insert romance?

I hope that this discussion makes sense! In summary, I’m not excusing terrible actions. But a villain is going to act like a villain and a morally grey character is going to act like a morally grey character. You cannot watch them act in the way that their backgrounds, personalities, and fictionalized ideologies have dictated and insist that they are problematic. An author can be problematic, and therefore that author’s own ideologies can take over the entire book, and that’s where I would agree that a character can be “problematic”. Anyways, I’d love to hear any opposing, agreeing, or just general thoughts on this debate! And remember to keep it polite (not that I’m worried about that because y’all are the SWEETEST lol). Feel free to discuss below!

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16 thoughts on “let’s discuss: is there such a thing as a “problematic” character???

  1. I definitely agree with your point that it’s more so Problematic authors as they’re usually the people that come up with what the characters do! I guess for me, a problematic character would be in a lot of drama, quite toxic and got involved in some things I wouldn’t particularly want to be done irl, in my opinion!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting discussion and I think it is one you could think on for hours, almost like it can be a case-by-case scenario.
    I think characters are capable are doing problematic behaviour without it being their sole defining quality. Like you say, sometimes they are meant to be unlikeable (therefore calling them problematic is almost redundant seeing as in order to make you hate them, they need to suck) or the context is needed. As long as it means something, it is meant to be there. I feel like if it is resolved or reacted to accordingly then I don’t find them problematic, it has a purpose. If it was ignored or shown as right… probably reflecting author ideologies like you said then it is problematic.
    Great discussion, you definitely made me think about it differently! I feel like I will be thinking on it for a while now! 😂 Thank you for writing it! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you completely. As you said, it doesn’t need to be their defining quality because it almost fits their personality. That’s a great point about whether the behavior is being shown as being right! It really changes the whole case for sure. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts💜

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree this is a topic we can talk about for a long time. I sometimes have a hard time knowing how to tell if it is the author or the character that is problematic. Is it the author when the “problematic character” doesn’t change and uses his/her abusive/destructive ways to win?

    Sometimes I think authors can have such characters triumph just to show the devastation they can wreck and thus, indirectly, condemn them. But I’m not sure all readers get the message; they may see the problematic character winning and think it’s a good idea to copy their ways…

    (And btw Happy Easter to all reading this post this weekend :))


  4. oh yes yes I absolutely agree
    I usually say a character is problematic when they’re homophobic, disrespectful towards an entire community, romanticising toxic things (looking at Bella like Edward just broke into your house and is watching you sleep creepily and u don’t call the police which is literally available downstairs????) and such things.
    Also, I have seen people rate books less because the villain is ‘problematic’. You cant rate a book one star because The Darkling burnt down you-know-what. He’s the villain and he’s supposed to do that! That’s what makes him a VILLAIN!

    And I’ve seen people saying Kaz is toxic. Yes, he is. But this is different because Leigh Bardugo didn’t romanticise his toxic behaviour. SJM romanticises the relationship between Rhys and Feyre which is incredibly toxic and no one says anything :))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are great points! Yeah, all of that behavior really is problematic. And you make a great point about Bella and Edward, like someone watching you sleep and breaking in is not romantic in any sense LOL.
      Omg yes! That annoys me so much! Just because a villain is, you know, doing VILLAIN things doesn’t mean that the book’s bad haha.

      That’s another great point! I haven’t read ACOTAR but I’ve a lot of stuff about Feyre and Rhys’s relationship. Kaz’s toxicity is for sure written differently than theirs. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!!💜

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I totally agree about Jude and Cardan. Context is EVERYTHING with those books, and many others.
    I mostly think problematic characters are often meant to be problematic. I.e. Ex’s who are abusive without remorse; or parents who are neglectful. Again, this could be taken as a plot device, but then you have characters like Tamlin who ticks both boxes. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

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