Eva Lesko Natiello, author of ‘The Memory Box’ questioned, “Do readers need to like the protagonist?” in a Huffpost essay.
I thought, no. I think a reader needs to care about what will happen, given the situation, morality and ambiguity but I changed my wording from care about to need to know what will happen to the character.
Deciding I needed more input, I asked my wife, the reader, what she thought of the question. “No, readers don’t need to like any of the characters.” She offered as an example, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, by Lionel Shriver. “That book was beautifully written. The story seemed so real that some people were confused as to whether it was true or fiction. I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t like any of the characters.”
Spoiler Alert Warning.
She continued, “The mother was cold and seemed emotionally distant. Her son was a screwed-up killer, who killed his father and his sister.” She didn’t like the father/husband at all. The daughter was a minor character who didn’t really play into her feelings.
Ms Natiello’s question prompted further thoughts. First, not all readers will bring or take the same aspect from novels. Considering readers’ reactions to books become fascinating. As Ms Natiello mentioned, she read a book review where a book was given one star. The comment was, “Hated the main character.”
Eva goes on about the things I’d thought. Some readers seem to think that it’s their duty to like the main character and base their reaction to the book on how they feel about the main character. It’s critical to one friend. A voracious reader, if she can’t like the main character, she can’t get into the book and won’t read it. Likewise, even if she reads the book, if she can’t relate to it on a personal level, she doesn’t like the book. Relating to the book on a personal level means that something she read in the book triggers a memory of a like experience. It’s a position that appalls me because it narrows the narrow aperture into which new experiences through books can enter.
Considering Eva’s question is a reminder of how personal books are to people, as readers or writers. I struggle with the idea of characters a reader will like or hate. My characters tend to be unreliable as narrators, betrayed by memory, expectations, emotions and intentions. It fascinates me to encounter people who believe they’re telling the truth but what they describe is completely contrary to what I witnessed. They’re not deliberately lying, but are viewing it through their own prism.
Likewise, because I will relate something different, it doesn’t mean that I’m correct, either. I can be just as flawed in what I witness and how I describe it.
Natiello’s post is an inviting read into these complexities. She concludes it as I would, “Most characters are not black and white. Personally, I love deeply flawed good guys and bad guys who elicit empathy. Other people like it when characters are strictly one or the other. Of course, I support anyone’s criteria for the books they choose to read. It’s a very personal decision, and it should be. I just don’t believe a book is bad because its characters may be.”
There you go. It’s an intriguing subject, and, like her, I wonder how other writers think about it.