Sunday, 3 February 2013

Do you have to like a character to enjoy a book?

Reviewers of Fire so far seem to have mixed opinions about its protagonists: some like Jasmine for her desire to help those she loves, but take a strong dislike to the selfish, sometimes cruel, Roxy. Other's like Roxy's intensity, but find Jasmine a bit frustrating. To an extent, this divide was something that I consciously tried to create: I wanted my characters to contrast each other and to be, truly, fundamentally quite different.

With Roxy, I was creating a character who starts out as a product of her environment, of her upbringing, yet slowly learns to think for herself and to form her own opinions and judgements. Roxy grows most throughout the first novel and her personality continues to develop through out the series. Jasmine, on the other hand, is going to have a lot of 'growing up' to do in the next two books. Despite being the 'good' protagonist (if I'm putting it simply) she does make selfish decisions, particularly at the end of Fire, and she will have to live with the repercussions of these as her story progresses.

When I was writing Fire, I loved that Roxy wasn't perfect and that she can be quite dark: when she first meets Brae she relishes her task - she is looking forward to killing him. However, I worried that Jasmine was the weaker of the pair and that she was a bit dull in comparison. When the very first person read Fire, therefore, I was shocked to find that he loved Jasmine, but found Roxy really difficult to connect to - he didn't like her at all.

But do you have to like what a character does to like reading about them? Does an unlikeable character affect a reader's enjoyment of a novel? These questions were prompted by my finishing a novel called 'Beware of Pity'  by Stefan Zweig ( I read the translation by Anthea Bell). I loved almost everything about this novel. It is set just prior to the beginning of World War One and follows a young solider who falls prey to his own pity and desire to do good, ultimately (and inevitably) causing heartache and disaster through his actions. The story offers an excellent insight into human failings and explores its protagonist's decision making process in great depth. There was one, very interesting quirk to it though and I'm sure, given the subject of this post, that you can guess what it is:

I didn't like the protagonist at all.

But that doesn't mean that I didn’t like reading about him. He is young, naïve and weak. He rationalises his decisions to the reader throughout, yet I always disagreed with him and could tell that what he was doing was going to end badly. But if he hadn't been like that, there would have been no story at all. The plot, as the story of a less-flawed character, just wouldn't have worked.

It reminded me of the novels I love by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: books with fascinating plot lines and suburb settings, but indifferent, flawed characters. Perhaps this is why my own characters aren't completely likeable. I am, of course, not trying to compare my writing to the works of these writers - I'm not delusional with regard to my ability. But I do think that they have impacted the way I view characters as a writer; they have shaped my image of what a character should be.

You should question what a character does and their motivation for doing it, and you shouldn't always agree with them.  To be successful, a character should make you think; not make you like them. 


  1. That's a good question. I find myself thinking that a lot actually.

    I have loved books where I hated the characters and loved characters that I absolutely hated and would run far away from if I met in real life. I think what is most important is the character's depth and journey. When an author can make me believe a character's motivations and transformations then, even if I hated the plot of the book, I usually walk away with something more substantial than I disliked the book because of the story.

    They may be nothing more than words brought to life in my imagination, but I want to believe the character is real.

    On the other hand, if a character is infected with the disease my friends affectionately dubbed SHS -Silly Heroine/Hero Syndrome- where they constantly make choices that make no logical sense, I think it kills a book pretty quickly. Characters like the horror movie screaming girl stereotype that follow the most illogical route and end up getting killed or getting others killed are horrible wastes.

    I may not agree with the character's actions, but I want to understand and believe the motivations behind such actions. I have been known to root for a well developed bad guy over poorly developed heroes for that very reason.

    1. SHS is a great term; I'll have to start using it!

      I agree with you completely - it's great to see a character's motivations well thought out and explained, even if you don't necessarily agree with them. That's one of the great things about the 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series actually; Martin tells the story from so many different perspectives, that you feel as though you understand all of his characters.

      I think maybe it's also easier to develop 'bad' characters rather than 'good' ones because you can go into more depth over what makes them tick... In Austen's novels, I tend to end up preferring the 'rouges' to the heroes, because (perhaps with the exception of Darcy) the heroes are a bit bland; at least characters like Frank Churchill and Willoughby have motivations, even if they're not very moral!

  2. The Hunger Games is the best YA series I've read in ages and one of the things I loved best was Katniss. She too wasn't very likeable in many ways - wary, untrusting, quick to anger. It made a nice change not reading about a well-rounded, attractive teen who has it all going for her.

    1. Katniss is a really strong character and I liked that she wasn't perfect too. I definitely liked her throughout though. I'm not sure there was a character I disliked in the Hunger Games actually; they were all very well developed.