BOOK THOUGHTS ON THURSDAY | GOOD BOOK; BAD CHARACTERS

Book Thoughts On Thursday

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!

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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!

6 thoughts on “BOOK THOUGHTS ON THURSDAY | GOOD BOOK; BAD CHARACTERS

  1. Martha Woods

    I really struggled with Hausfrau. The writing was AMAZING, but in the end, I still just didn't really like the book all that much, because the characters irritated me too badly. It left me feeling like I had a bit of a headache. :/ On the other hand there are books I've read that were super light and fluffy and enjoyable to read, but I don't even remember the MC's name once I've turned the last page. I guess I try to enjoy a healthy mix of the two–some to enjoy, and some to teach me about literature.

    Reply
  2. Martha Woods

    I really struggled with Hausfrau. The writing was AMAZING, but in the end, I still just didn't really like the book all that much, because the characters irritated me too badly. It left me feeling like I had a bit of a headache. :/ On the other hand there are books I've read that were super light and fluffy and enjoyable to read, but I don't even remember the MC's name once I've turned the last page. I guess I try to enjoy a healthy mix of the two–some to enjoy, and some to teach me about literature.

    Reply
  3. M.

    I can't even tell you the number of times I've gone back and changed ratings – both higher and lower – after letting a book marinate for a while. Precisely because of how the emotional effect of the book affected me immediately after reading it. I used to feel like that was cheating somehow, but now I have come to the conclusion that sometimes it just takes that extra time and distance to have an accurate view of a book. I've often considered just eliminating ratings altogether, but I know I find them really useful for providing an overview of reactions to a book, so I have kept them. But there are times when it's really, really hard, and I often end up regretting them later!

    Reply
  4. M.

    I can't even tell you the number of times I've gone back and changed ratings – both higher and lower – after letting a book marinate for a while. Precisely because of how the emotional effect of the book affected me immediately after reading it. I used to feel like that was cheating somehow, but now I have come to the conclusion that sometimes it just takes that extra time and distance to have an accurate view of a book. I've often considered just eliminating ratings altogether, but I know I find them really useful for providing an overview of reactions to a book, so I have kept them. But there are times when it's really, really hard, and I often end up regretting them later!

    Reply
  5. Katie McD

    I loved reading this! YES, the rating is SO HARD. I just recently experienced this when I read “An Untamed State.” By the end of the book, I was ready to wallow in a hole of despair, and just felt SO AWFUL, that I gave the book 3 stars, because obviously it was beautifully and powerfully written, but translated my general feelings of badness into that rating. But as time passed, I returned to give it 3.5 stars, and then ultimately settling on 4 stars because of it's lasting effect. “An Untamed State” is also a really great example of INTENSE conflict over a character, because I really didn't like Mirelle AT ALL… and felt GUILTY over that, because of the horrible things that happened to her. I still haven't quite figured that one out… Really interesting post, and I'll be interested to re-visit it and see what others end up commenting. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Katie McD

    I loved reading this! YES, the rating is SO HARD. I just recently experienced this when I read “An Untamed State.” By the end of the book, I was ready to wallow in a hole of despair, and just felt SO AWFUL, that I gave the book 3 stars, because obviously it was beautifully and powerfully written, but translated my general feelings of badness into that rating. But as time passed, I returned to give it 3.5 stars, and then ultimately settling on 4 stars because of it's lasting effect. “An Untamed State” is also a really great example of INTENSE conflict over a character, because I really didn't like Mirelle AT ALL… and felt GUILTY over that, because of the horrible things that happened to her. I still haven't quite figured that one out… Really interesting post, and I'll be interested to re-visit it and see what others end up commenting. 🙂

    Reply

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