Over at Random Jottings Elaine mentioned being aggravated by a couple of female characters in the Inspector Lynley novels. She noted that one was "the female character I would most like to kick in the butt", and this got me thinking about annoying characters in general.
My characters that "I would most like to kick in the butt" include Catherine Morland and Fanny Price courtesy of Miss Austen in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park respectively, and Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. Also in contention are George Eliot's characters Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda and Rosamond Vincy from Middlemarch. To be honest I think Rosamond Vincy takes the prize. There is something about a lot of heroines in nineteenth century novels that sets my teeth on edge. They're often either vapery and missish, or potentially bitchy rebels that are just a bit too tea-party or lady of the manorish in their rebellion, or failing that they are just dishonest. Give me the eighteenth century Moll Flanders over silly sly Victorian Cathy Earnshaw any day.
In the spirit of equality male characters for whom the same treatment is required include, for me, Joe in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, Louis de Bernieres Captain Correlli (he of the Mandolin), Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice (of course!), Margaret Hale's father in Mrs Gaskell's North and South and Paul Dombey senior in Dickens' Dombey and Son and Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. Oddly I can think of more irritating men in twentieth century novels than in the nineteenth century ones. For women (avoiding chick-lit) I think the chronology of irritation is reversed.
In children's fiction of course many irritating characters are included deliberatly as irritating characters, and you are meant to enjoy your irritation. Gwendolen in Malory Towers, Susan Pyke in Ruby Ferguson's Jill books, Crabbe and Goyle in Harry Potter (though of course these latter become something far more sinister) are just a few. Not only do they irritate the reader, often humourously, they irritate the characters in the books too. Interestingly you get this a lot in Jane Austen too: Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine de Burgh and (again) Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice alone. Irritating characters in adult novels rarely do this I think, and it is strangely a feature of Austen's work. Gwendolen Harleth and Cathy Earnshaw are explosively annoying to the other characters in the novels, rather than being scratchily irritating. Maybe it is partly because of this feature that Austen shares with children's fiction, that Austen is so easily enjoyed by any child (girl usually) old enough to cope with the vocabulary. It helps create the surface lightness and bubbly sensation of mild social tension, so beloved of the traditional "Janeite", regardless of whether you fully understand the real maelstrom turning underneath.
Irritating characters interestingly do not necessarily impair one's enjoyment of a book. In fact I would put almost all of the adult novels I have mentioned very high on my list of all time favourites. So long as the irritating character is balanced in a good mix then, no problems. For me my least favourite of the adult novels above is Wuthering Heights, and this, I think is because so many of the characters share the same facets of Cathy's character that annoy me so. If you are not annoyed by Cathy, then you probably feel more positively about Wuthering Heights. WH is so incestuous (literally as well as metaphorically) that characteristics are bound to be replicated; it is like watching marked or even bad characteristics in a dog being deliberately bred though an entire extended gene pool. For me it is bad enough reading about Cathy without Heathcliff, Hareton, Hindley, Joseph and the rest.
Contrastingly Pride and Prejudice is enhanced by Lady Catherine and Miss Bingley, they make Elizabeth's enagement more than a good romantic conclusion; it is also a social victory. We could perhaps have lived without Mr Collins though!
So which literary characters would you "most like to kick in the butt"? Do they have the potential to spoil books for you, or do you find it doesn't matter?