Almost every review or discussion about a particular book includes some sort of comment - some in brief, some in detail - about whether a character was likable or unlikable. Often times, negative reviews result when readers find that a character was unlikable. Others, such as myself, can find enjoyment in a novel regardless of an unlikable character. Neither view is 'right' or 'wrong,' but it does lead the question: does it matter if the protagonist of a book is likable or unlikable?
First, it's probably useful to figure out what we even mean by a 'likable' character. Is it being able to relate to and empathize with a character's actions and emotions? Is it having a character that always tries to do the 'right' thing by following a strong moral compass, or it simply someone who has a strong, entertaining personality? Defining what makes a character likable is tricky, and probably differs according to each reader, but in general it seems to combine aspects of everything mentioned above. "But wait," you say, "isn't that just the definition of a well-written character?" Although yes, all of the former aspects are appreciated, it's not necessarily crucial for a character to hold strong moral values or have relatable qualities to be considered 'likable.' One example of a book in which I love the characters is Six of Crows, which is largely due to the incredibly charismatic personalities each character exhibits.
Conversely, what are unlikable characters? And this is where it gets really tricky, because there is a fine line between characters that are unlikable because they are poorly written and characters that are unlikable because of their own personal character. I've seen people lament the dislike of a certain book due to it having characters that made poor choices, had bad moral values, didn't care about right or wrong, or just simply didn't 'click' or relate with a reader. These are all completely valid points to make, but I don't think that means you have to automatically dislike a book because of an unlikable character.
Personally, I don't need to like a character to enjoy a book. Does it help? Sure, sometimes. But in general, if a character is interesting enough, I don't care if I think they are the most amazing person ever or a complete and total asshole. There's a difference between characters that are strongly developed with consistent character/personality and are unlikable versus characters that are unlikable due to their poor development and lackluster character. There are numerous book where I found the main character, dull, rude, annoying, or just plain stupid, but the mark of a good author is apparent when people still read and enjoy said book. Sometimes unlikable characters are supposed to be that way, and I still want to read the story. But sometimes they are just plain obnoxious (Falling Kingdoms, I'm looking at you..), and I can't keep going, so I DNF.
One reason I actually enjoy unlikable characters is because it allows us, as readers, to read about a wide variety of human nature. Some people just aren't inherently likable, but that doesn't mean that there is no story to tell. I mean, even many famous figures - Steve Jobs, for instance -- weren't exactly 'likable,' but society as a whole is still generally extremely impressed with him and will continue to read about him and buy products from his company. This brings me to the argument that likable vs unlikable characters also comes down to pure judgment: do we dislike a character and therefore deem their entire story unimportant? Or do we consider reading past and seeing what else is there. Again, this all depends on how the character is written, but I'm writing this with the assumption of strong, well-developed characters and not characters who are unlikable simply because the writing is bad.
Overall, I fall into the category of readers who do not think it matters if a character is likable. If the story is well-written and I'm still finding myself intrigued and not hating the book, then I'll keep on. It's always nice to read about characters that we can personally connect with, but I rarely try to see myself in characters in books, so perhaps that's why I don't mind so much. I would love to go into more depth on this topic -- maybe with more examples -- but since I don't want to go on for ages, I'll leave it here.
So now I'm curious: what do you think of likable vs. unlikable character? Does it matter to you? Will you read a book even if the character just doesn't work for you?
I would probably prefer likable characters over unlikable characters. I like characters I can relate to. I'll read a book with unlikable characters, but it definitely affects my opinion of the book. I remember one book, "We Are Unprepared," had a really unlikable main character. He wasn't necessarily a bad guy, but he was pretentious and condescending and critical of his wife. So, even though I liked other parts of the book, his personality kind of put a damper on the book for me.ReplyDelete
Oh yes, I can certainly understand that. Characters of that sort do tend to leave a certain cloud of negativity or bad feelings on a book when looking book, which can really affect opinions when considering the book as a whole or looking back months/years after reading it.Delete
Back in the early days of television and film you could always tell the good guys from the bad guys by their attitude, dress, even by the actors hired to portray them. You could even tell them by their musical theme. The bad guys always had a sinister theme playing when they were on screen. In Westerns the producers went so far as to have the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys, black. Then in the fifties they introduced the concept of the "anti-hero". It became very popular, and is still around today in both books and films.ReplyDelete
Of course anti-heroes have always existed, we just didn't have a label for them until then. And the rule was, that in order to make these characters work, the writers had to make sure the antagonist was more evil than the protagonist. The protagonist also had to be sympathetic--you, the viewer or reader, had to understand why the protagonist had his/her evil side, so you could champion them against characters who were less sympathetic. Most often some terrible event from the protagonist's past, totally out of the their control, had caused them to have their "evil" side.
Today we would just call these well-rounded characters, as everyone has their good and bad points. I also think we misunderstand what constitutes an antagonist in both literature and film. An antagonist doesn't have to be evil. They just have to have a goal that is in direct opposition to the goal of the protagonist. The antagonist also doesn't have to be an individual. It can be a government, a philosophy, etc.
BTW, I love this discussion, Jordan, and would love to hear what your other readers think!
This is a fantastic discussion point, I really enjoyed reading through it. It's interesting to consider television and how characters were portrayed in relation to being the good guy or the bad guy, as well as the focus that has happened in recent years on the anti-hero. I really like that you point out how an antagonist isn't necessarily evil - I think's that something that is often forgotten or overlooked.Delete
I've liked plenty of unlikeable characters in the sense that I didn't like them as a person, I wouldn't want to be friends with them, etc., but I found them interesting to read about as a character, or I found them so impressively realistic and enjoyed reading about them for that reason. But it's tricky because I've also read about unlikeable characters were well-written... but I didn't like them. But in many ways I do like unlikeable characters because I feel like most characters in books are too perfect and therefore unrealistic. Like you said, not everyone in real life is likeable or perfect.ReplyDelete
You touched on a great point, Kristen--is the protagonist realistic? I see unrealistic characters a lot in literature--they just don't behave like real human beings, and for me that's a real turnoff. Also, I have to find the protagonist sympathetic. However, my sympathy for them does not hinge on whether they're "good" or "bad". Indeed, if they're too consistently good or too consistently bad, that makes them unrealistic, as no one is good or bad all of the time. But on the flip side, if a character is abhorrently evil, that makes them unsympathetic. It's a tough line to walk. Like you said, I might not want to be friends in real life with a character who has serious character flaws, but I can sympathize with why they are as they are, and that at least makes them interesting to read about.ReplyDelete
Personally, I read any book mainly for the characters, so I have to like them. Even if the MC is a villain or an anti-hero, I still need to like them to care to read the book :) Awesome post!ReplyDelete
Brittany @ Brittany's Book Rambles
I adore unlikeable characters, the Secret History by Donna Tartt is a good example, but only the ones that are well written.ReplyDelete
Unlikeable characters that I can't stand, are the ones that are written into existence when adults try and imitate teenagers, but fail miserably. Lines like "OOOOMMMMMGGGGG" get on my nerves, because a) rarely anyone talks like that and b) if someone did talk like that, they would probably be a 12 year old. Not the 17 year old that the author is trying to write.
Fleur @ Fleur Henley
I couldn't agree more, Fleur! It harks back to Kristen's point that it's alright if a character is unlikable as long as they're written realistically. Remember Scrooge from A CHRISTMAS CAROL? Scrooge was about as unlikable as they come, but Dickens did three things brilliantly in this novel: First, he wrote Scrooge in a realistic manner; second, he showed us why Scrooge was such a disgusting human being; and finally he gave Scrooge a character arc. Scrooge started as a terrible person, but learned and grew as a human being so that he was a different person by the end of the story. All of these elements made Scrooge a good anti-hero. Did you ever see the movie SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE? The Jack Nicholson character, Harry Sanborn, was the perfect anti-hero. Like Scrooge, he learned and grew as a character throughout the story, and in the end he became a better person--not a perfect person--but a better person. In this respect I felt the writer of SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE did a better job than Dickens in creating his hero. Scrooge became too good a person, whereas Harry just improved a little. This to me is a lot more realistic. Then again, Dickens was writing for the audience of his time.ReplyDelete