Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Important are Likeable Characters?

I recently read a book that I absolutely loved. The writing was outstanding, very perceptive and beautiful. Almost every word was perfect. I haven't posted the review yet...it's coming next week. ;)

But I got on the blogs to see what others thought and was surprised to read negative review after negative review. And the main complaint was that the characters weren't likeable.

I paused to consider. Did I like the characters? No, I concluded, I didn't like them in the way I like Harry Potter. They definitely made choices I would not make. But it didn't really matter, because I believed them. Even if I didn't like them, I thought they were tremendously human, flawed, yes, but real. I could imagine that they really existed and their motivations made sense to me even if it wouldn't have been the same for me.

I was sad to read so many negative reviews of a book I know will stay with me for a very long time. One I will pick up to reread passages and recommend. But there have definitely been times I have not liked a book because I didn't like the characters. The difference I think, is that I actively disliked them. I didn't want to read another page about them! I couldn't understand what they were doing and why and didn't really care how they ended up.

How important is it to you that you like a character in a book? If you don't like the main characters is it a deal breaker? Or do you read for story?




Amy

56 comments:

Charley said...

I don't necessarily need to like a character, but I need to understand them, their motivations.

Taste Life Twice said...

I think it's important to me not to hate the MC. I don't have to like them but if I HATE them, that's pretty much it. I can hate or dislike characters other than the MC just fine.

Meghan said...

I agree with Taste Life Twice. I can dislike a main character, but I can't hate them. They can get on my nerves but only if it's understandable, if that makes sense. Well-rounded characters make a book, not just good ones. And sometimes the story is worthwhile on its own.

Nymeth said...

It depends. Sometimes disliking the characters keeps me from connecting with the story, sometimes it doesn't. But there are books that make me feel that I was supposed to dislike the characters, you know? And most of the time, when thst happens the book still works. I also agree with Charley: to me, understanding is more important than liking.

Beth Kephart said...

I find it difficult to read on if a character is repugnant morally. Other than that — complexity is always a good thing, and complexity means shades of good and shades of bad; it suggests reality.

debnance said...

I just finished a book that bored me to tears. I only read it because I'd been told it picks up around page 100. Well, not for me. I've been trying to figure out why so many others liked it and I didn't. Part of it was the characters. I didn't care about the characters; I didn't like them, but I didn't hate them. Just meh.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think there has to be at least one likeable character or I don't connect. But you nailed it - the characters have to be believable, even if you don't love them.
Post your great review! The author will be delighted that someone connected with his creation.

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”
www.circleoffriendsbooks.blogspot.com

Sandy Nawrot said...

I don't necessarily need to love the characters, but they need to be developed. If they are one dimensional, I will lose interest. In fact, I think it is a little fun to read a book with despicable personalities...it livens things up!

Julie P. said...

I don't need to like a character to enjoy and appreciate a book. I think it's more important if they are real and well-developed.

Anna said...

Great question! For me, I don't necessarily have to like a character, but I have to feel something for them. If they are just blah and I don't care either way about them, then that does affect my enjoyment of a book. It helps to know a character's motivation, even if I don't agree with it. Even though I might not connect with the characters, I can still enjoy a book if the writing is good. But that connection with the characters is the difference between an okay book and a great book. For me, anyway.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Tam @ Bailey's and Books said...

What a great question, and one that I am not sure I paid attend to as much when I was reading. But I certainly will now.

I have read books where I don't like the main character but have still enjoyed the book because as you said, they were believable. If the writing is good, and the story ultimately takes me someplace, then I can be happy that I read it and not view it as a waste of time.

I think I am more apt to put a book down more if the characters bore me, than me not liking them.

Pam said...

I've always considered that a funny thing to say. Not a bad one ebcause some people look for plot or thought or character, it's not for me to judge. BUT I sometimes HATE a main character but I know I'm supposed to hate the character so I dig it anyway, you know? Also, I think every character rings differently for every reader. harry Potter was definitely a character I wanted to shake and say NO! DO NOT DO! He got under my skin and annoyed the daylight out of me. Did I read all seven books? Yes, in about three weeks. So sometimes, you can totally disagree with characters and their choices but get along fine with the rest of the book. :)

Deborah said...

i think it depends. it's one thing for a character to make choices i wouldn't make, as long as they had reasons for making those choices it is understandable. it's the Too Stupid To Live characters that I don't like, when they do things like a mass murderer is outside who rapes women and they walk out in a bikini to look for him. stuff like that.

Amy Reads Good Books said...

Good question! I agree w/ L. Diane. . . I usually need one character I like or identify with. If I don't like any characters, it's tough to enjoy the novel. Your distinction between likeable and believeable is important. However, I think I still need one relatable character. Whew, that was a lot of -ables in one comment. :)

Bluestocking said...

I guess it depends on the point of the book. I recently read Liquid Sunshine by Justin Hart. I couldn't stand the two main characters. However, there was an important moral to the story. Basically the narrator was looking back on a situation in life that he handled the wrong way.

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

It definitley depends, but I think you have something when you said you didn't actively dislike the characters. That seems to be the line for me. If I actively dislike characters (Zoe Heller's "The Believers") I do not like the book. If they are not likeable but I don't particularly dislike them ("The Embers" by Hyatt Bass) then I can really enjoy the book if the plot, writing, etc. are good.

Lezlie said...

It depends. Normally I would prefer to have at least *one* character that I really like, not necessarily the main character. But if the book is done well, it may not matter.

Lezlie

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

For me, it's all about the writing and how well the author makes the point he or she is setting out to make. My book club read The Believers last month, and though there's not a single likeable character in the entire thing, most of us enjoyed reading the book. The characters needed to be unlikeable to make the story do what it was supposed to do.

Now, if the characters are unlikeable but it's an accident or a byproduct of bad writing, that's a whole other story. But in general, I don't have to like the characters to like a book.

Jennsbookshelf said...

Is it the book I think it is?? No, I don't have to like the characters in order to like the book. It certainly helps, but is not a requirement.

Liz said...

Robin Hobb and Fiona McKenzie have written some of the most unlikeable antagonists in the fantasy genre, but yet, you understand exactly where they come from.

Other authors have toyed with unpleasant characters as main characters or as the hero, and it works if it is done well, if you as a reader can understand their motivation and if it is handled with care.

In the end, its the story that counts - for me, at least.

I also would like to point out: if you intensely like or dislike a character created by an author, that author has already won - because she/he has done the near impossible by making you react to the book. Which means their job's done.

bermudaonion said...

I don't have to like a character to like a book - sometimes it's tremendously fun to hate a character.

susiej said...

I don't have to like the character right away. I'm a patient reader. I wait to see if they learn anything, but if I get to the middle of the book and they are still turning me off, then, I generally say, "There's too many good books waiting to be read for me to stick with these people."

I guess I have to see seeds of likeabiltiy. Take Atonement for example. Bryony was a brat but she thought she was doing right. I kept waiting for her to right her wrong. But I did like the second part- in Robbie's POV much more, harrowing and heartbreaking as it was, because I liked him more.

coffeelvnmom said...

I will say, I like to connect with the characters, because it pushes me to read more, find out what happens next. I don't have to connect with all of them, or like all of them, but I need to like/connect with at least one.

For instance - in one of the best (as in entertaining) books I read lately I didn't like one of the characters - thought she was a stuck up snob. But by the end of it, after all she had gone through, I liked her almost as much as the main character. That's what I want when I'm reading...to close the book feeling satisfied. Do I have to feel as though they are all perfect and happy go lucky at the end? No.

Another book I read recently had the main character always procrastinating and not getting things done. Though it was necessary for the story line, I found myself annoyed and wanting to yell "what are you thinking? Do this! Do that! Get your mind in the right place!" So I can honestly say I didn't connect with that character or like the book as much, even though it was a decent story line.

Not sure if that made any sense. lol

Diane La Rue said...

I don't need to like them, but they must be interesting. I find it more enlightening to try and understand unlikeable characters' actions. It can more challenging reading books like that.

Alexa said...

Oh interesting question. I don't have to like them but I have to understand them and see why they are making choices I disagree with. Whether it's their past, the way they were brought up, the time they live in.

Recently I read Libba Bray's The Gemma Doyle trilogy and while I didn't always like Gemma I always understood her motivations and I loved the books as a whole.

Also I love Hemingway but a lot of his characters aren't very likeable.

The only time I stop reading is if characters bore me, which happened with a recent book.

Barbara said...

I do enjoy when I really like the characters but I never really was all that crazy about Bill in the Sookie Stackhouse books and that didn't stop me from reading the rest of the. If I'm drawn into the book and even end up yelling at them while reading it doesn't really matter if I don't like them as long as I'm enjoying the story if that makes any sense.

ibeeeg said...

Great question! I have read all the comments and thought the insights to be wonderful as well.
I do not have too much to add except.

For me, well defined/developed characters are a must! Does this mean likable? I am thinking...no. What I do need though is a an understanding of the characters. There must be something that draws me to the character, something that I can connect to. Does that draw-connection have to be a likable quality, not necessarily.
Hmmm... you have me thinking.

Ti said...

I don't have to like the characters or even be able to relate to them. I just need them to be realistically drawn and the more complex they are the better. I like layers and one-dimensional characters really turn me off.

Lorin said...

If there's something else to grab me about the book - great writing, plot, &c - I can get past unlikeable characters, usually. But if its a character-driven book, and I hate the MC, I can't do it. I don't usually stop books halfway though, but I've given up on a few movies/TV shows b/c I disliked the MC.

Amee said...

I think characters being likable are important, but I don't always stop reading if I don't like one. Usually the character is able to redeem themselves or I have some other motivation for continuing to read (maybe just to figure out how things turn out...I hated hated Bella in New Moon but wanted to know how things turned out so I kept reading).

Bart's Bookshelf said...

I'm very much a character based reader so if I dislike the characters, then something about the book has to be pretty special to draw me in and keep me reading.

Angiegirl said...

Great question! I generally require a character I can like. That doesn't necessarily mean I have to think they're a very great person. Most of my favorite characters are hopelessly flawed and occasionally do absolutely reprehensible things. However, like you said, I believe them. They are real to me. And they grow. I think it's their changeable quality that is almost as important as how much I "like" them. If they're evolving and learning then I'm behind them. If they're static and still the same at the end as in the beginning, then that bugs me. Same for flat, one dimensional characters. They don't hold me for a second.

And I definitely agree with you on actively disliking a character. If they're the main protagonist then that makes it pretty hard for me to enjoy the book. This happened to me not too long ago and it was impossible to enjoy because I hated the MC so.

Memory said...

I don't necessarily have to like them, but I need to be able to feel for them. If I can't appreciate what they're going through, I can't appreciate the book.

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

No, I don't think that we need to like a character. I read a lot of books where I hate some of the characters! I think that I must be invested in their own story enough to care about how their character will act. Story and character need to go hand in hand.

Michelle said...

I think there is something to be said about loving to hate a character. Not every character is likable....in fact in many cases the author *wants* the reader to dislike them. There are any number of characters in literature that I wasn't personally fond of but they served a grand purpose in the story and as long as their motivations fit and provided progression I think disliking them is entirely acceptable.

Jennifer, Snapshot said...

Good question! I think that the book has to be really good if I don't like the characters.

If it's a great book, I don't really care, but if it's mediocre, AND I don't like the characters, then I find myself with no reason to continue.

Can't wait to read the review.

Debbie's World of Books said...

For me characters matter a lot. If they are unlikeable for a purpose in the story then I can deal with it. Or if there are supporting characters that I can relate to then that also helps. If the story is weak and I don't like the characters then it's a deal breaker.

Penelope said...

Great post, and such a wonderful question posed.

Personally, I love it when I find I don't like a character. If an author can make such a stand-out character, and I'm still reading the book, then she/he is definitely doing something right. Before you think I'm crazy, let me explain myself by first giving three examples of this:

Catherine & Heathcliff, from Wuthering Heights. Let's be truthful, Catherine was a brat, and Heathcliff, a jerk. But that is what made them so memorable, and their story lasting.

Scarlett O'Hara, from Gone With the Wind. I disliked Scarlett. I disagreed with just about every thing she did, and every word she said. But couldn't stop reading, and my heart broke along with her's in the end.

These characters behaved in the exact opposite ways I wanted them to. The things they did weren't predictable, or sometimes even socially acceptable. I like this; when I am surprised and caught off guard by a character. It makes me want to know more about him/her, creating a need to know what happens next.

There have been characters, though, that I haven't liked and I couldn't stand to read any more of. This is usually because their actions weren't consistent with what they have been doing or saying for the entire book. There's nothing I hate more than an off-beat character sticking her tongue out at someone just for the heck of it. I want consistency.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that when done right, these types of characters are my favorites!

Eva said...

I don't have to like the main characters, but if the book is written from inside one character's head, and it's a repugnant perspective, sometimes I have to stop reading or end up not liking it. Usually, it only happens when the narrator is very anti-women.

Heather J. said...

My first reaction was to say that yes, I need to like the characters ... but then I thought of Wuthering Heights. Those people are not likable AT ALL yet I love that book. :)

Shauna said...

I can't imagine sticking with a book if I didn't like any of the characters or at least certain things about them, particularly the protagonist. It also depends on whether the character experiences a change or redemption at some point in the story. Just because I don't like a character at the beginning of a story doesn't mean I will feel the same way at the end. The Kite Runner is a prime example.

Jenn M. said...

Good question! I think that sometimes it is nice to like a main character, however, I agree with what you and others have said. It is fine to have an unlikeable character so long as you understand or it is believable.

Someone brought up Wuthering Heights...great example. Very unlikeable characters, but a great book! And someone else brought up Robin Hobb...I have 3 Robin Hobb books sitting on my bookshelf right now given to me by a friend to read. Haven't read any of them yet, but we will see!

Thanks for the great conversation.

Jenn M. said...

Also...now I have to know what book you were reading!!! I will be looking for the review. :)

Jena said...

I can't dislike ALL the characters, but I'm okay with disliking most of them. I read for book group a couple months ago The Book of Eve (haven't had book group yet so haven't blogged it yet). I wasn't particularly fond of any of the characters, but it's still pretty memorable. Also, I really didn't like the narrator of The Gargoyle, but it was still my favorite book of 2008.

Lit and Life said...

I agree that the characters have to be believable--and that may mean that you like them or dislike them, but you have to care what happens to them.

Letters on Pages said...

Likeable characters are paramount! This is the reason CSI: Vegas is a good show and CSI: Miami sucks beyond belief. They are the same show...just different characters.

Suey said...

Often I don't like the characters but still like the book. But sometimes not liking the characters does make me not like the book. However, I think of the example of Wuthering Heights. Many people hate this book because of the whiny immature characters. Yet, I love it despite them.

Shon said...

Good question. I didn't like Bella in the Twilight series, but still loved the series as a whole. I don't have to like the main character, but if I don't like ANY of the characters, well then that's different.

Not feeling connected to the characters is worse for me. Reading a book without feeling anything is horrible to me.

bibliophile23 said...

I think liking and connecting to a main character is extremely important. The last book I reviewed, Hungry Woman in Paris, was not given the best review simply because I could not stand the main character.

I also have an award for you here.

Juju from Tales of Whimsy said...

Characters are super important. No matter how good the book is - if I'm not drawn to the characters and how they interact I won't love the book.

Melanie said...

I don't think it matters if I like the character or not. If they are a consistent and well written character and are acting in a way consistent with the story, my opinion isn't really important. If they are intentionally unlikeable, I hope I will catch that. If they are acting in a way I would find repugnant in real life, I hope to learn why, or to see things the way they do in order to understand.

Jenny Girl said...

Now I ave to know what book it is!
It depends on the story whether I need to like the characters or not. I don't have to totally love them, but I guess believable is good. If I dislike the story or the characters are too stupid or something, then I probably won't finish the book. but if there are mean characters and they are part of a good story, then I'm all for it.

justicejenniferreads said...

I love books with likeable characters - the kind of people that I would love to have as friends. That being said, I don't read books just to fall in love with the characters in them. There are other elements that I look for in a book when deciding whether or not I enjoyed a book. For example, even though I hated Bella, I really enjoyed reading Twilight - the story was captivating. Furthermore, I think that some characters are meant to be hated or disliked. Can't think of an example off the top of my head with this one, but my point is that you can't like every character that you come across, which is why I try not to judge a book solely on the likeability of the characters. Usually, if it's a good story that's well written, I like it - I mean, getting those two right is hard enough, right?

Alison (Alison's Book Marks) said...

I think it's all about how well a book is written. If the book can support an unlikable character, I'm in. If it's an unlikable character paired with a mediocre plot and sub-par writing, well, I'm out.

I think The Reader is the first book that comes to mind when I think of an unlikable character in an amazing book. I struggled with this book, because I didn't like HER, but I felt such frustration with her that I couldn't help but become invested in the story. Does that make sense?

heidenkind said...

This is a difficult question. I don't think I need to like characters, but I do need to sympathize with their actions. For example, in LA Confidential, none of the main characters are likable. At all. But I still became really attached to them and interested in their stories because I understood them.

One book I absolutely hated because of the main character was Red Badge of Courage. I hated that guy, and I didn't care what happened to him. I guess in that case I understood why he did what he did, but I didn't sympathize with it. Which makes no sense.

Stewart said...

That a character be likeable should be the least f the reader's concerns. That they be interesting should be the demand.

Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to comment! I appreciate hearing your thoughts.