Personal Levels

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.


6 thoughts on “Personal Levels

Add yours

  1. Great post! I find I’m like your friend who must like the characters to make it through the book. I’m not sure if she feels the same on this point, however: I can come to like some pretty horrible main characters. They can be completely despicable human beings, but if something about them feels human enough, I find I care what happens to them. Some characters are so bad, I “love to hate” them. I read to see when karma catches up to them.

    Like you, I prefer characters with flaws and defects. For me, liking a character isn’t so much a matter of whether or not I could be friends with them if they were real; it’s about how interesting they are to read about.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think that she can come to like a horrible character. I don’t think she can see something like that unless she can see it in herself.

      I’ve gone through some pain with characters that I didn’t like. Welsh’s character, Roberson, from ‘Filth’, comes to mind. I think your last point is the best: how interesting they are to read about. Of course, I’ve read some authors say that to make it interesting, you need to be cruel to your characters.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Eva and you regarding this subject. It is so personal. But, I also have to admit that my feathers start to ruffle every time the subject comes up, mostly because some readers use their dislike of a main character as justification to pan a book, say that it’s unworthy of consideration or praise. As Eva points out (and I’m so glad you shared her piece, and your own views), the need to “like” a main character is a matter of taste, and taste alone. It’s no different than preferring romances to mysteries, fantasy to science fiction, or tea to coffee….

    As for me, the likability of a character is never an issue. What is an issue is that a book’s main character should be interesting and believable enough to keep me reading about them. If I stop being interested, or stop finding their actions credible, I’ll stop reading.

    Many thanks again for sharing the article and expounding with descriptions of your own characters. Sounds interesting…. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your point about the character being interesting and believable enough is where I come from when writing. Then there is a ‘consistency of character’ that must align with the story being told and the character’s understanding of themselves – and other characters’ understanding of that character.

      Thanks for reading and expanding the conversation. Cheers

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I often read books with characters I don’t like. Even the main character, but there has to be something there, something compelling that draws me in. On the other hand, I have read books that I don’t like, but still read them for a book group read. I have learned to be tolerant, or as I call it reading out of my comfort zone. Because of this, I have discovered some really fantastic books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read so as my older son Michael says, “it’s all good!” ~nan

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I’ve done the same. After writing the post and meandering away, I recognize that my willingness to accept a character (or characters) I don’t like is dependent on my experience with the author, my expectation for the genre, and my reasons for reading a specific selection.


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