26 May, 2011

Do You Have To Like The Main Character To Enjoy A Book?

I've come across novels where I really didn't like the main character, or just felt indifferent toward her/him--but whose plot and setting I enjoyed.

(SOURCE. Do ignore the URL. It's safe. :P)

For example, The Cup of the World by John Dickinson. The main character, Phaedra of Trant, did some things that were naive (and a bit stupid), which just seemed to attest again and again that she was a very strange person. But I read the other two books in the trilogy and liked them as well, for the world the story was set it was amazing (full of its twists and turns and personality, if a world can have personality) and the plot was so complex. The other two books also had characters I didn't like--however, I still felt like that The Widow and the King and The Fatal Child, were definitely worth the read for the other aspects to them.

I felt the same way about books such as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the first book in The Genius Wars series by Catherine Jinks, and others. I just didn't like the characters, but I did like the plot and setting of the books. A lot, enough to give them at least a 4-star rating (for those of you who haven't read my book reviews, I go to within a tenth of a decimal point) even if they weren't particular favorites.

Which brings up the question:

How much do you have to like the main character(s) to enjoy a book? How much can you stand from a character before it really affects your opinion of a story? Can you think of any examples where you would have liked a book more if the main character(s) had been more appealing to you?

-----The Golden Eagle


L.G.Smith said...

If I'm not liking the main character, what usually happens is I get about seventy pages in and discover I couldn't care less what happens next. And if I don't care what happens I stop reading. It's funny, because it doesn't take much for me to bond with a character, but sometimes it just doesn't happen. I don't know why. :(

Sarah said...

It depends on the situation. If the character is well-written and interesting, then I'll probably like them regardless of whether they're a good person or not. I'm thinking specifically of A Clockwork Orange here. The lead character is pretty horrible, but well-written.

On the other hand, if the character is inconsistent or presented as a good person but actually a ninny or self-absorbed jerk, I'm not going to get far in the book.

I like flawed characters, but only when they're expertly and intentionally written.

Sunny said...

Sometimes I may not care for the main character at the beginning of the story, but either the side-characters are entertaining enough to keep me going, or as you said the world and plot are enough to convince me to continue on. And sometimes, that character that I couldn't stand end up being my favorite. For example, when I first read A Game of Thrones, I absolutely hated Jaime Lannister, but as the story continued, and grew, I came to like him quite a bit (even though he's not always "good") - Same with his brother Tyrion Lannister who starts out vile and wretched, but is now one of my favorite people in the whole series. I think if the characters have some sort of growth or change that makes them more enjoyable, even if not necessarily more "likable."

M.J. Fifield said...

I don't think I have to like the main character to enjoy the book but I certainly think it helps. I like Sunny's example of Game of Thrones. It's very fitting.

Glenn said...

My book's just come back from its first round of submissions and the reason given for several of the passes was an inability to warm to the narrator. It thus seems important to editors that your central characters are likeable.

Krispy said...

This is a great topic! It helps a story a lot if I love the characters; I will put up with more (i.e. if the world-building isn't that great or the plot is slow). But like you said, it is entirely possible to enjoy a book without necessarily liking the characters.

If the plot or world is especially engaging or if the writing itself is very good, it can make up for a less-than-likable or blah main character. A book I ended up really liking for the plot and other characters was The Demon's Lexicon. I had a hard time engaging with the main character (he was odd, to say the least), but he had enough good traits and enough mystery to keep me interested and the rest of the story was good. And then everything came together perfectly in the end. So it was well worth the read and slight discomfort. The 3rd book in the trilogy is out in June, and I'm super excited to read it!

Margo Benson said...

I find that if the character is meant to be unpleasant, weird, cruel etc but well written with a certain emapathy then I'll read on. I just have to care for them in some way. If not, then I'll lose interest. It has to be VERY bad for me to give up a story altogether.

Michael Offutt said...

If I don't like the main character, I won't continue to read the book. Luckily in my current books that I'm reading, there are no main characters at all.

Misha said...

I don't really have to like the main character, but it definitely helps. Still, I'm counting on people tolerating a nasty character in my WiP. :-)

Rogue Mutt said...

From reviews people like my main character the least of all and yet they enjoy the book, or so they say at least. So I guess if you surround your main character with other interesting people and situations then it doesn't really matter.

Old Kitty said...

I guess it depends on the book for me. Perfume by Patrick Suskind for instance had the most amoral mc - not normally a problem but then completely devoid of anything wickedly subversive or just horribly bad. He was just - oh I don't know - one-dimensional. But I read on because I really had to know what would happen to him! Then got so disappointed by the ending.. oh the ending was atrociously bad!

I've probably not answered your questions! LOL!! But I guess with a story like Perfume - I read on because I was totally hooked by the need to know the mc's fate (then threw the book across my room - I tend to do that alot!!- after reading the ending!LOL!) Right, I am definitely rambling!! Take care

GigglesandGuns said...

I've read books where I tolerated the MC while loving everything. One in particular had a rather stupid MC. We all make mistakes and errors in judgment but with this MC when choices came up if you thought of the dumbest mot improbable one you hit it every time. She became boring to the extreme.

Heather said...

The best novels are the ones where I love both. But I have to agree with you, I can love a novel but not the character. I felt the same way about The Hunger Games, great story and world but the character was just sort of there for me. I still loved the novel though!

ali said...

Hey! It's not teaser tuesday! Woot!

Well, I watch HOUSE. So yeah.

The only book I can think of is THE DEMON'S LEXICON. I wasn't sure about the MC for much of the book, but I still enjoyed the read.

(: Just Becca :) said...

I've read the Hunger Games (and loved them) but I totally understand what you meant by not liking the main character(s). Peeta and Katniss had their faults, I felt, but the idea of the book kept me going the entire time. Cool picture, by the way. :D

Clarissa Draper said...

I usually have to like the character to like the book. The character doesn't have to be nice but they CAN NOT be stupid. In my mind, stupid characters = stupid plots. And I can't stand reading stupid plots. However, they would have to be really bad...

Good question.

Jessica Bell said...

I actually couldn't stand the MC in in Talli's The Hating Game but had a really great time reading the book! I don't think it's always necessary to 'like' an MC.

Amanda the Aspiring said...

I don't know if I necessarily have to like a character--they have to be sympathetic. If I can't like them as a person, I'd like to be able to feel pity for them, or compassion. I recently read I'm Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells, which is written in the head of a 15-year-old sociopath, and while I, as a human being not diagnosed with sociopathy, don't really relate to or like his violent tendencies, I feel pity for him and keep reading to see how he deals with everyday situations. I grew to love the character because of his terrible struggles within himself. If the MC is just plain annoying, however, I stop reading. They can be a good person, they can be a bad person, and they can be a rather flawed person, but when you tread into annoying, count me out. ;)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I admit I have to like the characters. At least the main character. He has to possess some redeeming feature for me to connect. I remember reading Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant years ago, and the main character was so dispicable, I didn't enjoy the book and never read another in the series.

Jules said...

I must have a good plot, with great emotion. I can re-write the characters in my head, makes the book last longer. :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

laughingwolf said...

i'm reading a book now, despising the author for being overtly 'hollywood' in her characters [first time i dislike ALL... at least so far... i'm some 10 chapters in]... if i hate it so much, why continue to read? i'm hoping for some redeeming quality, if only to assure meyself my money was no totally wasted

crowed as a 'new york times best-selling author, with 17 novels to her credit, can my take be that wrong?

i may end up tossing it before i finish, something i have not done since trying to wallow thru a book on a so-called new religion, eons ago... it's that bad!GRRRRRRRRRRRRR

Shelley said...

I don't think there's ever been a time where I stopped reading a book because I didn't like the main character. Actually, I've never really been in this situation. But great question! :)

Alleged Author said...

I don't have to like a character a whole lot to love the book. There have been quite a few "snarky" characters that I've read about yet I still loved the plot. I hate the MC in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, but I do love the concept of the novel.

However, it seems more and more agents/publishers/editors are looking for likable characters. Maybe that's just what I've been seeing though.

Michael Di Gesu said...

This is a GREAT topic Golden.

Personally I enjoy a book much more when I like the characters.

I do have tolerance for bad boys and girls, but they MUST have some endearing quality to digest the bad behavior.

Trisha said...

I really loved the Rhapsody fantasy trilogy, but I really couldn't stand the heroine ;)

Helen Ginger said...

If I dislike the character from the beginning, I may not continue to read. But if I love the story and then start to dislike the character, I may keep reading, for a while anyway.

Angela Ackerman said...

I think one of the most important things to achieve if you have an anti hero MC or a character with unlikable characteristics is have them do something redeeming that gets the reader on their side, just a little bit. If you read Save the Cat, they use the example of Aladdin. In the original book, Aladdin was a really lazy, thieving selfish kid. To counter this in the Disney Screenplay, they added the scene where he steals the bread, evades the guards and just as he's about to eat it...sees the two starving children and gives the bread to them. One small act of kindness, and suddenly the reader is on Aladdin's side. :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Jennifer Hillier said...

I guess my answer to this would be: it depends. Is the character likely to redeem himself/herself? If so, and the story is compelling, I'll definitely read. But if not, and I really can't root for him/her, I might lose interest.

Duncan D. Horne said...

I don't think you have to 'like' a character to enjoy a novel. Not all main characters have to be good or the hero. Sometimes I prefer to read of dark characters or just something that is different from the usual 'hero' character.

Duncan In Kuantan

Jo March said...

I totally agree that characters make a huge difference in how readers respond to a story. I began reading "The Three Musketeers" this past winter but later put it down. The plot and writing style were to die for, but I just couldn't sympathize with the main character. D'Artagnian was a good guy to begin with, but when he becomes selfish and womanizing like his musketeer friends, I have a really hard time rooting for him--especially when the selfishness and the womanizing are portrayed as normal or even positive traits.

Perhaps I'm somewhat Victorian in my standards for a character, but I like to believe that readers still want heroes who fight for what's right--not their own selfish desires.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I read a book sometime back where I hated the main character, but I loved the story. He came across as a weakling.But, I continued reading because of the plot elements that had me glued to the pages.

Michelle Merrill said...

As much as I loved Twilight, it would've been better if I liked Bella. She was kind of depressed and bratty. But, like you said, if there's another element of the story, like the plot or setting, that are really great, it can still make a good book. Thanks for the post. I haven't given this much thought but it's definitely something worth stewing over :)

Kimberly Krey said...

I've only read (well, finished) one book where I wasn't really loving the main character. The plot was good enough for me to keep going, and the pace was quick. But I really like falling for the main character; reading, for me, is funner that way!

Cheryl Klarich said...

When I don't like the main character I try to figure out if it's my problem (like if I'm jealous of a fictional person because they're too perfect) and I need to get over it. Or I'm truly justified in my reaction... I really don't want to have to set up a therapy session over something that is supposed to be pleasurable... like reading.

M Pax said...

The Thomas Covenant series - it was hard to like the main character at first, but he grew on me. There have been other sci-fi stories which would have been majorly improved with an intelligent, likeable character. Well, they don't have to be likeable if they're incredibly interesting and I can respect the character. If I lose respect for the character, then I usually put the book down.

Brian said...

That happens sometimes and I often wonder if I'm going to contiune reading...but mostly I do keep reading if the stroy line is good.

The Golden Eagle said...

L.G.: That has happened to me, too. It's a bit frustrating not to know why you don't like a character, isn't it?

Sarah: Same here. As long as they're well-written, I'll dislike a character a lot less than I would have otherwise. (And vice versa--if a good character is written badly, I won't like them as much.)

Ugh, I don't like that, either. I've come across several books where the MC is presented as if they're a nice person, when they really aren't.

Sunny: Good point. Many characters start out differently than they end up--either they change for the better, or for the worse.

M.J.: I've never read A Game of Thrones. I'll have to check it out--if just to find out what it is about the characters that changes!

Glenn: I tend to enjoy a book more if the characters are likeable, since I can sympathize with them more, but that's only one negative, if the rest of the book is well-written.

But it is the editors that help get a book published isn't it? *sigh*

Krispy: Thanks!

I agree. There's a certain balance involved--if one is amazing but the others are only so-so, that can really affect my overall opinion.

The MC in the sequel, The Demon's Covenant, bothered me even more than Nick, for some reason. At least he had a reason for being so strange. Meg (is that her name, exactly? I just remember it started with an M) kept doing things I found really weird. :P

Margo: I agree. As long as I can feel something about a character, then I'll keep reading--even if it happens to be strong dislike. I want to see their demise, in that case.

Michael: I love it when authors play around with a story, without having main characters. Although it can help to keep things coherent if there's someone central.

Misha: I have an MC who isn't very nice, either. I suppose that's partly why I asked--I know I have one character who people would probably like, but the other? Unlikely.

Rogue Mutt: I agree. As long as there are redeeming qualities in the surrounding characters, it's more likely readers will enjoy the story overall.

The Golden Eagle said...

Old Kitty: No, you answered them! I love it when people comment with examples; and I love your point about one-dimensional characters. Some people in fiction are just rather . . . flat. In that case I don't really feel much about them.

Endings are important. I often keep reading just to see if the author does something really good at the end of the book.

Feel free to ramble!

Mary: I hate it when characters are stupid--or naive. It just drives me up the wall when characters keep making mistakes and it's terribly obvious they're going in the wrong direction.

Heather: Definitely!

So I'm not the only one who isn't a total fan of Katniss? I was thinking I was alone in that.

Ali: Nope! :)

I actually got more fed up with the second book in the series, rather than the first--the MC (don't exactly remember her name) got on my nerves.

Becca: I didn't really like any of the main characters in The Hunger Games. Katniss never really appealed to me--she was all right, but not as spectacular as all the reviews seem to say . . .

Glad you liked the pic!

Clarissa: There is a connection there. If the character makes stupid choices, then that directs the plot.

Thanks! It certainly seems to have gotten a lot of response. :)

Jessica: Me, neither.

I haven't read The Hating Game--yet. (Talli's one of my favorite bloggers!)

Amanda: I've heard a lot about I Am Not A Serial Killer lately; I wasn't immediately attracted to the idea of reading something through the perspective of a sociopath, but a lot of people seem to like it. Or at least find something good about it.

Count me out as well! I despise annoying. It's so . . . well, annoying. :P

Alex: At least there are relatively few books with MCs who don't have any redeeming qualities at all--at least, it seems that way.

The Golden Eagle said...

Jules: Sounds like a good strategy to me!

Laughingwolf: I don't think I've ever come across a book where I disliked all of the characters--I find that if the MC is bad enough, there's usually a villain to start cheering for.

I don't know. Some strange books have made it to the NYT Bestseller list; and other lists.

I hate having to give up on a book. Particularly if I didn't take it out of the library!

Shelley: Lucky you, then. :D

Alleged Author: I've never read The Catcher In the Rye, although I plan to get around to it--sometime.

Glenn (above) said the same thing.

Michael: Thanks!

I agree. A reason for their actions or some positive quality about a character can add a LOT to an otherwise-horrible character.

Trisha: I've never heard of it; but I've come across books where I really didn't like the heroine.

Helen: Most of the time I just push through or give it a break for a while (with a few exceptions) but loving the story would definitely keep me going.

Angela: I hadn't known that--I haven't read many of the original stories from popular movies/adaptations. Great example!

(I really have got to get my hands on a copy of Save the Cat.)

Jennifer: Good point! If it looks like a character might change throughout, that will make me a bit more enthusiastic about them. There's hope at that point.

Duncan: Same here. Heroes you can cheer for are always good, but it can be nice to take a break from the usual and read something with a person outside of the usual.

Jo: That sounds a lot like The Wings of a Falcon, which I mentioned in the post. The MC, Oriel, was such a jerk I couldn't stand him. He kept doing things that were horrible and nasty to the people around him, totally ignoring the fact he was tearing apart their lives.

I agree; unless the character is presented, at the outset, as being an anti-hero or a villain-style character. People who are presented as being good but who really aren't have no appeal.

Rachna: That's happened to me, too.

Michelle: I didn't like Bella, either--she seemed that way to me, too, not to mention a bit naive and weak.

Anytime. I'm glad you liked the topic! :)

Kimberly: It can be more fun. There's more to root for, if the character's likable!

Cheryl: You have a point there--a lot of reading's just for fun. I just like finding out what makes a reader tick. :)

M: I agree. Respect is important; I've found many characters that I respect, but don't particularly like. (One example would be the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. Do I like the MCs? Some, not especially. Do I respect them? Yes.)

Brian: I agree! If the storyline's good, I'm much more inclined to keep reading.

Sari Webb said...

I'll like a book to an extent if I'm not clicking with the main character, but I probably won't love it.

I loved Hunger Games, but it wasn't until the next two books that Katniss started getting on my nerves and I didn't like either of them as much.

PS. I loved Good Omens too! So good. =D

Ellie Garratt said...

I think there are different ways to write a novel, such as making it about characters, plot, or an idea. If your novel is concept or idea driven, rather than a character based, the MC needs still to appeal to the reader. Having said that, I think if all the other elements work, an unlikeable character can be forgiven or overlooked.

Jackee said...

All good points! I don't have to like the mc, but I can't be annoyed by them. It's the whole reason I could not get into the Twilight series. Bella just bugged the ever livin' stuffing out of me. :o)

the writing pad said...

Good point :-)
I think there's a difference between a deliberately written flawed / bad / unsympathetic character and one which the author thinks is a convincing, well-rounded person, but isn't! This character can then be annoying and uninteresting, as opposed to a character that you don't like, as such, but you really want to know what happens to them next...

Anonymous said...

Me, I have to like the MC. If I don't like him or her, then I'll shut the book rather quickly. I need to care about them or else I'll move onto something else.

The Golden Eagle said...

Sari: Me, neither. I'm able to like a book a lot, but love would be stretching it.

I didn't bother reading the next two books in the series--I actually looked up the plot on Wikipedia to find out what happened. :P (I know, I know! But I wanted to see if the characters did anything I agreed with.)

Definitely! :D It's too bad Pratchett and Gaiman haven't written anything else together.

Ellie: I agree. To an extent, unlikeable characters can be all right so long as other aspects to the story are worth the read.

Jackee: Annoying characters are the worst. And it can be pretty easy for a character to become annoying, can't it? :P

Karla: Thanks!

Oh, for sure. I don't mind as much characters that are purposefully written unlikeable, but if they're presented as being good or honorable when they really aren't, then I don't care as much at all.

Stephen: Reading can be much more fun that way. :)

Edith F. said...

This makes me think of my experience with Emma by Jane Austen. Normally if I don't like the main character I don't stick with the book, but with Emma, for whatever reason, I plowed through and was glad I did. Only by disliking Emma so much at first did I see the depth of her transformation. It was an amazing experience: Austen brings Emma's changed character to the fore only when Emma reaches the crisis point near the end of the book, and until then it all takes place under the surface.

This has to make me wonder how many other surprises I missed by turning away main characters I didn't like...


Cally Jackson said...

Lolita springs to mind! I can't say I particularly liked Humbert Humbert but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Great post!

Suze said...

I guess I enjoy a book most when I can respect the narrator. It's very difficult for me to spend hours in a depraved, remorseless, cruel mind.