The world of books is never boring. Every week (well, most weeks) I’ll discuss a different topic related to books, often inspired by or in response to what’s going on in the online book community (or something I’ve seen another blogger talk about). I call this Book Thoughts on Thursday. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, or even write your own post on the topic and share the link with me!
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about unlikable characters. It’s kind of been in the back of my mind since reading Gone Girl, a book with absolutely horrible characters, the kind you can’t find much of anything redeemable in, but a fantastic book just the same.
This was an anomaly for me. I’ve often found that if I don’t like the main character of a book, the book itself won’t make my favourites list. I find it really difficult to enjoy a book if I don’t enjoy spending time with its characters, particularly if it’s written in the first person thus putting me right inside their head.
But recently I’ve been thinking about my perspective on this issue. After all, not every good book is a comfortable or enjoyable reading experience. In fact, some of the books that have stuck with me and changed my mental landscape the most were ones that were incredibly disturbing or upsetting to read. Often this is because of the subject matter or plot, but why should a difficult protagonist be any different than a difficult topic or event?
I discussed the topic at some length with Katie from Bookish Tendencies, who, unlike myself, is a fan of unlikable characters. Our discussion made me stop to consider my stance and what was really behind my reactions. After some consideration, I realized that I’ve scapegoated unlikable characters and blamed them for books I just didn’t like. In reality, it was usually a matter of finding other issues with the book, and the fact that I didn’t like the main character was just part of the problem. I’m discovering that when an unlikable character (or a whole cast of them) is well written with depth, insight and interesting traits, and the plot of the book works, I’ll end up considering it a good book.
After all, unpleasant characters are often necessary for a well-rounded narrative, and in many cases an antagonist can even have richer narrative potential. It can be fascinating to explore the motivations of a villain – it’s easier to understand a “good” character, but a villain… that takes some explaining. But usually they’re the secondary characters, over whom the protagonist must triumph. It’s different when the main character is the one who’s hard to handle.
I’ve further realized that there’s a separation between books I enjoy reading, and books I consider to have great literary value. It’s possible to really enjoy reading a book but not think it has much in the way of literary importance, or to find a book really difficult to get through but for it to be a book that is has a lasting impact on the reader and the literary landscape as a whole.
I knew this before, of course, but generally thought of it in the context of books whose content was difficult to read (for example books dealing with the holocaust or racial tension or depression or substance abuse… among many other topics), not in terms of books with characters I disliked. Perhaps because the two tend to go hand in hand. However, in thinking about it more carefully, I came to the conclusion that it works for characters just the same.
I think this distinction is key to my own perspective. If the book is otherwise excellent, and if the characters are presented in such a way that they make sense (even better if you end up feeling conflicted about a character you know to be “bad,” but the author’s representation of them makes you understand or even sympathize with them) and have depth, the book will still end up being one I consider excellent.
This was underlined by my recent read, Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum – a book that deeply affected me, the writing if which was so poetic as to cause me to re-read passages just so I could wallow in the words, but that contained not a single adult character I could honestly claim to like. Perfect example of an amazing book with a main character who was simultaneously sympathetic and very unlikable in my opinion.
I’m interested to hear what you all think on this topic. Do you have to like a protagonist to enjoy his or her book? Do you find it difficult to ascribe a rating to a book separate from whether it was an enjoyable read? Or do you find antagonists drawing your interest? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!