Every story needs a bad guy, right? The badder the bad guy the more compelling the read. But what about the protagonist? What if she's unlikeable? There are many readers who will say, heck no to that book. There are readers who will stop mid-book, or earlier, if they deem the protagonist unrelatable. I have seen well-written books receive 1 star accompanied by a review which simply says: "Hated the main character."
Are books the only art form where character likability is so intrinsic to its overall likability? I've never heard someone say they hated a song because its protagonist was a jerk. Art isn't valued less because the subject is unattractive. Even movies, which are often based on books, seem to judge their unlikeable leads with less disdain. So why the hostility and outrage (and threats of burning books) when the main character in literature is not warm and fuzzy?
Stephanie Daniel, author of Sweetbitter, in her interview with The Creative Independent, shares an exchange she had with one of her readers about her protagonist.
“Do you actually like Tess?” That was (the reader's) question. I was like, “Oh fantastic.” My answer aside, it’s been interesting to see that readers think part of their job as a reader is to judge whether they “like” the characters. That that is somehow integral to their experience of the book."
For some readers, whether they like the characters or not is integral to their experience. This goes back to what the reader's objectives are. Some read for entertainment solely. Others want and need to relate to the main character.
Stephanie Daniel believes that "there is merit in reading about unlikable characters." She says, "I want to have respect for whatever the author is trying to do or show us about the human condition."
Certainly, there are some genres which allow for more wiggle room on the likable factor, thrillers being one of them. But, I have received more than a fair share of 1 star reviews from people who believe a book has little worth if the main character is not likable. It is because of this review I recently received for The Memory Box, that made me ponder this topic:
This work is either one star or five, nothing in between. A robust piece brilliantly concocted by a writer who throws out the map and cuts pot holes in the road. This is a tale told to confuse while conveniently simultaneously baffling the teller: a narrator who cannot be relied upon and who cannot rely upon the tale within. The work is full of falsehoods which are true. Just as I was about to throw the thing off my balcony I realized something. As a reader, I had been fighting for control. That is why people read, no? Not here. I was inside a book, not a spa. I was dragged through swampland by a sightless misdirected lost flibbertigibbet that knew exactly where it was headed. Seriously, this is a frightening look inside the mind of the protagonist. Rarely is this type mind examined so thoroughly.
"I was inside a book, not a spa" Thank you, Powell, whoever you are. I never thought about it that way, but I will from now on. Most characters are not black and white. Personally, I love deeply flawed good guys and bad guys who elicit empathy. Other people like it when characters are strictly one or the other. Of course, I support anyone's criteria for the books they choose to read. It's a very personal decision, and it should be. I just don't believe a book is bad because its characters may be.
What do you think? Do you need to relate to the characters in order to enjoy the read? Do you judge a book on the likability of its characters? Why is literature judged more harshly than other art forms for its flawed characters?
Eva Lesko Natiello is the award-winning author of NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY Bestseller, THE MEMORY BOX, a psychological thriller about a woman who Googles herself and discovers the shocking details of a past she doesn’t remember.