Monday, October 10, 2011

Do characters have to be likable?

At the beginning of the Kids Lit Fest, knowing I was going to be traveling back and forth to Bath frequently, I downloaded from my library the audiobook for a well-respected, literary adult novel. I took it on my walk later that day, and hadn't even made it to the end of my street before I was sick of it. Both main characters were whiny, immature know-it-alls.

Fair? No, probably not. I looked the book up on Goodreads when I got home, and it's gotten numerous good reviews. Several readers point out that while the characters are annoying at the beginning, they mature through the course of the novel.

Maybe I should've given the book another shot, but it happened to be the second literary novel I'd encountered in the past month with this issue. If I'm going to devote hours of my time (11+ in the case of this audiobook), I don't want to spend it with whiny, immature people.

So I've been thinking lately about unsympathetic characters, and when they work and when they don't. I'm happy to root for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. There's nothing likable about Richard III or Dr. House, yet I watch with interest. So a character doesn't have to be a saint to capture my imagination. But there still has to be something there.

Meg Rosoff in her talk at the Bath Kids Lit Fest said she dealt with an unsympathetic narrator (Bob, the 19-year-old god in There Is No Dog) by giving him flashes of brilliance.

Meg and Melvin Burgess also talked about how in Melvin's book, Kill All Enemies, the characters start out unlikable, but as the reader learns more about them, the reader becomes more sympathetic.

I think the author has to do something to either help the reader engage with her character (make him funny or fascinating, brilliant or sympathetic) or her story (even though the reader can't stand the character, she reads on because she HAS to know what this character's going to do next).

Can you think of any other ways to entice readers with an unsympathetic character? And do you have any favorite unsympathetic characters?

I think ya author Courtney Summers is a master at making readers care about her characters, even though they do terrible things.


  1. I tend to prefer likable characters, but if they're interesting enough then I'm willing to give them a chance. This topic makes me think of I AM THE MESSENGER whose MC isn't exactly sympathetic, but he's so interesting and unique that I wanted to keep reading about him.

  2. Life's too short to spend it with people you don't like, or care about, if you don't have to.

    DS so disliked Holden Caulfield (catcher in the Rye) that he only managed to hang out with him because it was a school assignment.

    Good post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anna: Yes, I think interesting really is key. I haven't read The Messenger, though. Might have to give it a go!

    Mirka: Thanks!

    Ugh, that's the worst, being forced to finish books you can't stand! That's exactly why I ditched the audiobook--I just couldn't be bothered!


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