I disagree with my friends who think a protagonist needs to be likable to be relatable or understandable or worth my empathy as a reader. And even if the character isn’t someone I can empathize why, at least I understand why they make certain choices, have a particular outlook or disregard/deviate from my personal code of values or morals or view on life. That’s why I can read “Gone Girl” or anything by Jonathan Franzen or enjoy “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” or countless other examples of dark and occasionally unredeemed characters. Unlikable characters can be fascinating and complex and even more interesting than those we immediately love or root for.
But what I DO NOT GET is when an author offers up a character so angry and cruel and vindictive without much more of a compelling reason than she realized her parents weren’t perfect. I just finished a book that I was really excited to read — at first — but as the chapters went on, I found myself having a viscerally negative reaction to the main character… and not in a “what will she do now?” or “isn’t she a little schemer” kind of way. Instead, I kept saying to myself: “NO! Human beings this age don’t act this way” or “Ugh. That’s ridiculous. She’s ridiculous” or just “Nope. Not buying it.”
It’s a shame, really, because I’ve read so many books with supposedly or admittedly unlikeable protagonists and loved them. I’m willing to go the distance for an author who understands the fundamental need to have a character grow, change, develop. I might still dislike a character (I’m reading “Freedom” right now and pretty much can’t stand Patty Berglund, but I understand, given the way she was brought up, why she’s so insecure and depressive and competitive and a huge awful, ungrateful shrew to her husband, Walter), but I get the character.
What books have you loved despite disliking one or more of the main characters? Do you have a hard time enjoying a book if you don’t get the characters? What are your thoughts on unlikable characters?