After finishing a chapter of my latest novel, a friend from whom I’d asked for some critique said to me “yeah, it’s good, but the protagonist isn’t very likeable.”
Now, if you’ve ever created, well, anything, you’ll know how difficult it is to get some real, honest, critical advice from friends, so I didn’t want to dismiss her comment completely. However, I struggled to try and politely explain to her that you aren’t supposed to like the character, you’re supposed to learn from her.
It did make me think. Are we supposed to like the main character? Do we need to like them?
There are two questions here really. The first is whether or not a character needs to be likeable to be ‘good’, and the second is whether you need to like the character to enjoy the book.
For now, let’s try and answer the first question. To me, you absolutely do not need to like a character for them to be well-written. In fact, more often than not, a flawed and imperfect well-rounded character is preferable to a seemingly pristine one. They simply seem more real. And definitely more interesting.
I’m going to use A Game of Thrones as an example here. There are very few characters in this novel that are undeniably “heroes.” Every character is flawed, some more than others (*cough*Joffrey*cough*) but none of them are likeable all of the time. Tyrion Lannister, for example, a favourite of many, is witty, funny, clever and kindhearted (when he wants to be). However he is also extremely selfish. If we were to look at it the other way around, Catelyn Stark is a character that I particularly dislike as a person, but I admire her hugely throughout the novel, and that makes me interested in her. I think that word is key. interesting. That’s what makes a character ‘good’ not their likeability.
Some of my favourite literary characters in the past have been the antagonists, just because they have good dialogue or a truly fleshed-out back-story. I don’t necessarily want them to fare well, but I can take them out of context, appreciate the talent required to create such a character and think “yes, this is how I wish I could write”
The second question is harder to answer, do you need to like the protagonist to enjoy the book? A lot of people would say yes. Sometimes, it depends on the book. Another example I’m going to use is Farenheit 451, a dystopian novel that I love. The protagonist isn’t a great guy. I, personally, just don’t like him much, but I found myself not caring about that. I love the book because it examines society, both in this fictional world, and in our own, and I soon found that the character was simply a tool that allowed us to examine more closely. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel at all, whether or not I liked him. Sometimes, though, the enjoyment of a book hangs solely on how closely we can relate to a character, or whether or not we can root for them.
I don’t know, do I have an answer, or just a lot of questions.
I feel like the only thing I can say decisively on the subject is never dismiss a book because the character isn’t likeable. Maybe ask yourself if there’s a reason that the character is like that, is there something important to the story that it might highlight, or even ask yourself if there is somebody else you could be rooting for besides the protagonist.
If you ask me (and yes, I’m aware that you didn’t, but bear with me) we should all be doing that anyway, actively questioning the way a book is written and why. Not only can it help us understand and enjoy the book, but it can also help us take more away from the book than simply “man, I liked that dude.”