Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Likeable Characters

I was reading a random magazine article yesterday - an interview - and I found myself not liking the interviewee at all. She just came across as someone who'd stab you in the back if she had the chance. After realizing that, I really had no interest in reading any further.

The article, and my reaction to it, made me think about the characters we read about. In terms of main protagonists, I've realized that I need at least some speck of liking or respect for the character to keep reading.

I don't have to identify with them or even understand or agree with their decisions. And I'm not saying they can't be flawed. They could be incredibly bad, but despite all that, for a character to work, I have to feel empathy for them, if only on a very basic level.

What do you all think? Do main characters need to be likeable in some sense?


Julie said...


If I don't like the main characters, the book is pretty much ruined for me.

Recently I had to review a book from one of my favorite authors and I really, really disliked the heroine. No matter how much I tried to get into the story, the heroine always seemed to ruin the scenes for me.

I have to like the main characters. Secondary characters don't matter too much, but if I don't like the hero or heroine, than I have a hard time enjoying the book.

Susan said...

I agree with you Julie & Nalini. BUt if they are really horrible, sometimes the small evil part of me wants to see if they get theirs in the end. But normally I have to stop reading...

clare said...


I've picked up a book where the heroine seriously annoyed me and it's stopped me picking up the authors other books.

You do need some connection with the character in order to care about what they do/what happens to them. Even if they're evil they need something to get you hooked.

Best example I can think of is Rowlings' Snape. He's odious does good only under coercion; how many of us hope to find some secret redeeming quality in the next book? how many save Snape and Snape fansites have sprung up?
Is he likable? No...and yet!

LesleyW said...

Darn it, I don't know what's wrong. I posted to this twice and its not come through.

Luckily I've kept a copy (second time) 'cause it was quite a long post.

I have read stories where I didn't like the protagonist but loved the book.

The example I always come back to is Kushiel's Dart. That is a series I love, but I don't like Phaedre. Especially at the beginning, once Joscelin turns up she's more tolerable, because she's not going on about herself as much. I think with this series it's the richness of the world, the mythology, the history and the other characters that makes it worth reading. As I've said before, this is the book that taught me it's possible to dislike the protagonist but love the story.

In Sasha White's Bound, the heroine is unpleasant to an elderly neighbour (IIRC). And at that point it put me off the character. However, when I turned the page, she was self-recriminating and feeling guilty. By pulling me up short, SW made me see the character as a real person.

I do think if you're going to have a difficult or unpleasant main character then the rest of the story needs to be pretty spectacular to support that.

Saying that I would rather read about a difficult character than a nice one. Don't get me wrong nice is perfectly fine, but nobody is nice all the time. And if they are I find it unreadable and slightly suspicious. :)

Casee said...

I think they at least have to be reedeemable. If not, it's hard to like them. I have to at least like the characters to like the book. Otherwise it is really hard to get through.

Rebecca Benston said...

Yes, indeed. If I can't stand the character, I can't finish the book. For example, I really identify with Stephanie Plum and even Kinsey Millhone. I have read all of the books in each mystery series several times.

Another series I can read over and over are the Alex Cross books by James Patterson. I am always amazed at how Patterson instills such confidence in the reader about Cross's ability to solve cases.

While I don't need to like all of the characters, I need to be able to identify with at least one. If a writer can't make me want to be friends with, hire, or otherwise be involved in their character's lives, then there's no point in even opening the book.

ShellBell said...

I think they at least have to be reedeemable. If not, it's hard to like them.

I totally agree. One of my all-time favourite characters is Rupert Campbell-Black in the Jilly Cooper books Riders, Rivals and Polo. In Riders RC-B was a complete and utter b^&*#rd. As his character progresses throughout the books he remains a b^&*#rd, but his love for his young wife, Taggy, just shines through.

Jennifer Lewis said...

I think all characters are more interesting if we can at least empathise with them to a certain extent, including villains. I rather like reading about characters you "love to hate." That leads you into interesting scenarios as a reader where you want them to get punished yet also hope they'll find what they need to become decent.

Jen (who loves to write these kind of characters but has yet to sell one...)