When I start to read a book, I always find it in goodreads and change the status to 'currently reading' (if I already own it) or add it if it's a library book. Whilst doing this, I skim over the average rating and look over the first few reviews from the general goodreads community. And lately, I've been noticing a trend - that lots of people simply don't like a book if they dislike or can't connect with the main character.
I noticed it first with Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers (link to my review). It's about Victoria, a girl who has spent her life in the care of social services, shunted from foster home to group home and back until finally left to her own devices at age 18. At times, she is very unlikeable as she pushes away people that care about her, is irritatingly passive and waits for a happily ever after to just appear. This has led to many negative reviews of the whole book. But it just didn't bother me because whilst Victoria may not be the most likeable character, she is believable and I find that to be far more important. Her likeability or lack thereof never entered my head as an issue until I started looking at other reviews of the book.
I'm noticing it too in the book I'm reading at the moment, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. It's a coming of age tale set in a prestigous New England boarding school and the main character, Lee Fiora, seems to have set a lot of reviewers teeth on edge, judging by the amount of one star reviews on goodreads. I'm only about a third of the way in but I can see why readers might find Lee irritating - she is painfully socially awkward and like Victoria, she is passive. She bemoans her lack of friends but when people do invite her out, she turns them down. As someone who has rather socially awkward as a teenager myself, I can relate to Lee but I can see why others can't.
It all got my thinking - do you really have to like the main character in order to enjoy a book? Judging by other reviewers, the answer for many people is a resounding 'yes'. But I gave The Language of Flowers 4.5 out of 5 even though I didn't warm to Victoria. I think it all goes back to expectations - I don't expect to like every protagonist of every book I read, just like I wouldn't expect to like every person I meet in real life. Sometimes I prefer it when I don't like the character, as who really would want to read about shiny, likeable characters all the time? The world just isn't like that, so I have no interest in books being like that.
I can understand why people find it hard to enjoy books when they actively dislike the main character as so much of the reading experience is about connection, about seeing a part of yourself in a fictional character. I love it when I really relate to a main character, like I did in Agnes Grey, but that's not the be all and end all of reading. I want quality writing, an interesting setting and plot and above all, I want to understand more about the world and the people in it. Unlikeable characters can be the most fascinating as long as they are plausibly and believeably written. I like to get in the head of someone who is completely unlike me, even if just to get away from myself for a moment.
How do you feel about it? Is your reading experience soured if you dislike the main character? Do you embrace unlikeable characters or is it just something you are prepared to overlook if other aspects of the novel are good?
I absolutely don't have to like the main character to enjoy a book--I don't have to like any of the characters, in fact. However, I do have to find the characters interesting. And terrible people can be terribly interesting!ReplyDelete
Good point - I always liked the villains best in Disney films too!Delete
I don't think I have to like the main character as long as the story is engaging. Wuthering Heights comes to mind as does Gone with the Wind. Both didn't have 'shiny, likable characters' or atleast I didn't really like them but the stories still worked for me. However, if the focus of the book was less on plot, maybe a slice-of-life kinda tale, then it would be harder for me to stay invested in the life of a character I didn't like or didn't 'get'.ReplyDelete
I agree, I need to have stories that are good or characters I like, I don't need both. I imagine something like The Bell Jar would be hard to read if you don't like the main character.Delete
I loved The Language of Flowers, and wanted to shake Victoria several times while I was reading the book. She made me crazy. I just finished Loving Frank and though it was a good book, I couldn't get over how much I disliked Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Bothwick Cheney.ReplyDelete
For me I think it comes down to why I dislike the characters. Victoria was a victim who kept on being a victim by not letting people in. Frank and Mamah were just selfish people who I didn't care about. Great question.
I wanted to shake Victoria too although there were signs of hope by the end of the novel. And good point about the reasons why characters are not liked. I tend to not mind selfish characters though - Scarlett O'Hara from GWTW is one of my favourite characters and she is utterly selfish!Delete
It helps to like the main character, but I don't think it's necessary. I though that Lysandra in Gladiatrix was an arrogant snob, but I still liked the book enough to the point that I bought it for my own library.ReplyDelete
On another point, I do the same thing with GoodReads.
Even though I regularly read reviews on goodreads, on the whole I don't find the 'top-ranking' reviews that reliable - do you?Delete
No. I don't think that I have to like the main character to like the book, just as long as there is a character that is likeable then it's fine and if the plot is plausible.ReplyDelete
You know, I can't think of any book where I have disliked every single character, so you make a good point. Plots that are not plausible are a big no no.Delete
Personally I don't need to like main characters to like a book. You make a really good point about the reviews on goodreads, I had also noticed the trend to dismiss a book if the main character was unpleasant or hard to indentify with or empathise with, I wondered if it was a bit culture specific. I thought maybe it was more of an American thing but now I wonder if I am not just making an ignorant assumption. This is a good discussion point. I have to admit I do the same thing in checking out reviews for books I am about to read or am reading, some reviews carry more weight.ReplyDelete
I wonder what % of goodreads users are American, I'm not sure it is a cultural thing. Maybe it depends more on the kinds of books you usually read and whether you want to challenge yourself with reading? If you just want to relax when reading (which is fair enough), I imagine liking the main character is more important than if you read for other reasons.Delete
I don't think a main character has to be likable, but there has to be something in them or in the story to hook you in. I'm reading the Language of Flowers at the moment and enjoying it, but can see how she'd be unlikable.ReplyDelete
I ended up liking Victoria by the end, despite her negative characteristics because I felt sorry for her. Glad you're enjoying The Language of Flowers, it's one of my favourite reads from this year.Delete
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My answer is no, Sam. I don't judge a book on the basis of how much I do or don't like the main character, but more of how much I understand or believe in the main character. Example, I hate Scarlett O'Hara, but love Gone With The Wind.ReplyDelete
I actually like Scarlett O'Hara,even though she definitely has many negative characteristics. Sometimes I think nice characters are a bit boring to read about.Delete
Depends so much on the reader. My view is: no, but it helps. I absolutely loved, for instance, Gone with the Wind and Lolita, and the main female characters were completely unsympathetic. I do think that it's more a question of being able to related that liking. So many people read for escapism and a big part of escapism is to be able to imagine yourself the character.ReplyDelete
I think you make a good point about escapism. I tend to like escaping into the past or into a different country with a book, and what I feel about the characters comes secondary to that. Maybe it's different for other readers?Delete
I don't think you have to. I just finished reading a book called "The Car Thief" where I thought the main character was a selfish jerk (and that's putting it mildly). At the same time, the story was both well-written and insightful, and it made for an enjoyable reading experience.ReplyDelete
I share your opinion. I agree that if the characters are not sympathetic, the writing and story has to be good.Delete
Usually I don't like a character if I can't relate to them. I didn't like the girl in Prep either because I didn't understand why she did the things she did and just got annoyed. However, when reading Rebecca, the main character was very reserved and didn't speak up for herself all the time, yet I didn't think of her as wimpy because I understood where she was coming from. Then again, sometimes I understand a character's motivation but if their personal growth is moving a bit too slow, then the book can become repetitive.ReplyDelete
I do like Lee in Prep, probably because I was just like her as a teen. Even though her decisions don't make sense, I can understand them.Delete
Hmm, I am not really sure. I WANT to say that I don't have to like the characters to like the book, but I can't really think of a book that I truly enjoyed without liking at least one character. Though I *want* to be like Teresa and say that I just need the characters to be interesting, at least to keep me engaged enough to keep reading!ReplyDelete
Nothing wrong with wanting to like the main character Aarti!Delete
I don't think I have to like the main character...but I think I do have to connect with someone. That's just a personal preference, and it's because I'm drawn to people and their stories, what makes them who they are, etc. I'm an over-analyzer for sure ;)ReplyDelete
Great question! I encountered that recently with The Invisible Man. He made my skin crawl and I enjoyed the book but needed him to have a little more humanity. I think the important thing is you can identify with a main character's struggle to be a better person. I hate characters that are perfect!ReplyDelete
I really disliked Prep for the reasons you describe. Hope you enjoy it more than I did.
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It was difficult in the book Room to have any compassion for the bad guy.ReplyDelete
I'm off to Paris! Here's my
Paris in July post. Please stop by and leave a link to your Paris in July post(s) so that we can stop in and say hello.
I don't have to like the main character(s) in well written books like The Magnificent Ambersons or Serena- when their personality flaws are the point and there is something else compelling about the book. But there are other books where the unlikeability of the characters has turned me off the book- like Wuthering Heights- but I think that's because I was supposed to find that a love story and I needed to have some empathy for the ill-fated lovers when all I could think was yuck.ReplyDelete
I can throw this question on it's head: Has Irving Welsh ever written a main character that is remotely likeable?ReplyDelete
* its... (ouch)Delete
Believability and a well-told story are definitely much more important than a straightforward likable protagonist. Besides, it's easy to make a reader like a Miss Congeniality, it's much harder to make that same reader root for a character with flaws.ReplyDelete
Authors are very sensitive to this too, an author recently said in an e-mail that "quite often reviews are about whether the characters are likeable, and if they are not, then unfortunately the book becomes unlikeable – particularly with female characters".
Disliking a main character can be a hard thing to get past. However, I've had instances where I've disliked the main character, but liked the book, because as you said, the character was *believable*. That is important for me.ReplyDelete
And I've had cases where I've disliked the main character, and disliked the book, but that wasn't JUST because of disliking the main character. Sure, sometimes I'll say the main character made stupid decisions, and that made me not like her, but if a character does the same thing over and over, without learning from it, that irks me. Just an example, off the top of my head.
I don't have to like the main character, but it matters why he/she is unlikeable. Is the author using it as a contrast to something? Does the character grow? Is it making me laugh or see myself? If I can believe in some kind of higher purpose, I don't mind it one bit. Flaws are interesting, handled well.ReplyDelete
What a great question & terrific post! I don't believe you need to like the main character to like a book, but there does then need to be something else in the character or story that draws you in and makes it all interesting/meaningful, etc. I did struggle with this in Language of Flowers as I found it really hard to overcome my dislike of her - I wearied fairly early on of the constant pushing away of others and communicating only through flowers, which almost felt too simple at times, though the idea of the flowers having meanings is truly very appealing.ReplyDelete
I don't have to like the protagonist, but I have to not hate her as well. I'm currently reading Rumour Has It by Jill Mansel. I can't really relate to the protagonist, but she is funny and is not falling for the town heartthrob. Which I like. For me, it' s not a question of relativistic or connecting with a character. It's whether this character does stupid things or not...ReplyDelete
P.S: I meant reliability, not relativistic. Argh.ReplyDelete
I've noticed that trend in reviews also and without offending any readers, I think it's absurd (I'm sure there are some reasons I dislike books that may seem equally absurd to others). To me, it's mostly about how a character is written not what she/he is like. It especially bothers me when a reader writes he/she didn't like a historical novel because a historical character had no redeeming qualities or was unlikable. It's a historical figure, FGS!ReplyDelete