Monday, January 14, 2013

Do You Need to Like the Protagonist to Like the Book?


Discussion Topic: Do You Need to Like the Protagonist to Like the Book?

How many of you readers out there have had the following conversation?

You: Did you like that book?
Friend: No, I hated the main character.

It's surprised me over the years to discover how many people cannot invest in a story with an unlikable protagonist, even if that's the author's intent. It pains me, to be honest! As a reader, I can think of so many brilliant books that don't rely on a lovable protagonist to hook readers. As a writer, I ensure all my characters have flaws of some kind, and do have a few lead characters who will doubtless rub someone or other the wrong way...yet I hope their shortcomings are essential to the story.

It brings to mind a conversation I had in an art gallery this summer. I visited New York and the Guggenheim. As I turned my attention to the very first piece I passed, a stranger came up to me, leaned over, and whispered, "Do you like it?" Before I could answer, she added in a very serious, skeptical tone, "Now be honest." What immediately popped into my mind was something I had heard someone else say at a conference: "the point of art isn't to like or dislike it." We often think in those terms, but they're simplistic. In terms of visual art, like and dislike often refer more to aesthetic. For written arts, we usually mean "liking" as a measurement of enjoyment. Except there's more to art than that. To the woman, I joked, "I wouldn't put it in my living room, but I'm glad it's here in the museum." If by like, she meant, "Is it pretty?," my answer would be no. However, other factors still appealed to me and made me think and I'm glad I saw it. Art isn't always about simple enjoyment, but sometimes about pushing ourselves out of comfort zones. Steering the focus back to literature, I can think of books that I didn't like - perhaps because the story's too scary for me, or there's a depressing ending, or vivid, gory scenes - but that doesn't mean I think it's a bad book. Rather that, when it comes to tastes and preferences, this book falls outside what speaks to me. Stephen King is a great example. His work, especially the strictly horror stuff, doesn't appeal to me, but I nevertheless consider him a fantastic writer. If we're talking straightforward enjoyment, I didn't like WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's about a girl with an eating disorder...and it's depressing and discomforting. However, if we stretch our definition of "like" wider than enjoyment, I loved that book. It's thought-provoking and well-handled, in particular with how Anderson zeroes in on Lia's consuming obsession with a number on a scale and forcing that number lower, lower, lower.

Returning specifically to protagonists, though, no, I don't need to like the protagonist to like the book. What I need is to be invested in the story, and, while an endearing lead character can do the trick, there are other ways to catch my attention. Yes, unlikable protagonists can ruin a book for me, but whether or not I like the protagonist isn't equivalent to whether or not I like the book. So what's the difference between an unlikable main character who doesn't taint the entire story and one who makes you set that book down permanently? My answer is abstract and challenging to measure, but it often comes down to what I interpret as the author's intent. Obviously, I could be mistaken, but I usually get a sense for protagonists meant as satiric characters, or those that we're expected to resent or dislike a little while still investing in their struggles. The problem comes when I suspect the author's blind to her protagonist's faults and expects her readers to actually love this horrid character. Be they a Mary Sue ideal or utterly off-putting with too many faults to list, I need to feel like the author formed the protagonist this way for a reason.

Just like with real people, one can dislike certain traits in a character while still liking them overall, and I can think of plenty of books in which my problem with the protagonist didn't reflect poorly on my opinion of the book. In TRADE SECRETS by Yvonne Collins and Sandy Rideout, I found Kali a little shallow and hypocritical, but loooved the book and still cared what happened to her, still liked and rooted for her in fact. Brooklyn from Kate Carlise's Bibliophile Mysteries also comes off as somewhat superficial, often fixating on her appearance or checking out guys during murder investigations, but I don't resent that - it keeps the tone of a murder series light rather than melancholy or frightening. In SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman, I struggled to connect with our heroine at first since Seraphina shows so little emotion, but that only made me connect more when the feelings start overwhelming her. That's a prime example of an author crafting a protagonist a certain way for a reason! I also love Eva Ibbotsons's young adult books such as MORNING LIGHT and COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS, but they certainly feature Mary Sue-ish female leads: very goodhearted, always trying to do the right thing, so sweet and unselfish that some readers simply can't stand them.

Then there are books in which I don't find much redeemable in the protagonist, but plenty in the book! I doubt there's a single character I loved in Anne Bishop's THE PILLARS OF THE WORLD (though I found more than one to adore in the later books in that trilogy). Despite so many irritating characters, I adored how they played against each other as the complex, dramatic story unrolls. SEPULCHRE by Kate Mosse, or at least the historical half of the story, stars two rather annoying characters who proved interesting character studies. In Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES series, I can't stand Tally, the lead, as I rant about in my reviews. However, I love Shay, her best friend and consider her the true heroine of the series.

For many books, liking the protagonist isn't the point. Both SCORED by Lauren McLaughlin and FEED by M.T. Anderson strike me as satirical stories. Imari of SCORED and Titus of FEED are flawed protagonists representative of the values in these fictional futures. By today's measures, much of what they think and do seems wrong, but by presenting Imari and Titus as average teenagers in a different world, the authors show us how values have shifted. Then there's historical fiction, which isn't about making a historical figure entirely likable, but rather recreating a particular period and/or person and imagining unknown motivations for known history. The historical backdrop of THE AMERICAN HEIRESS by Daisy Goodwin, for one example, is as much a character as our spoiled lead Cora Cash. Similarly, DRAGON CHAMPION by E.E. Knight and other fiction starring animals is more about exploring animal behavior and unique perspectives.

Of course, I have read books in which the protagonist did turn my opinion against the book. I'm avoiding specific examples here, because, as I've mentioned before, I prefer to praise the books I love rather than bash books I don't like. So rather than listing titles, I'll talk in more general terms about what kind of protagonists can lower my opinion of the overall book. I talked about Imari from SCORED and Titus from FEED as two examples of satiric characters who can be selfish but their individual flaws reflect back on how society has changed. Even if I disagreed with or disliked Imari and Titus every now and then, I always loved the books. However, I see plenty of other similarly selfish characters to whom I cannot relate, because there's no greater depth. The character is self-absorbed, the author doesn't seem to know it, the character doesn't grow or mature over the course of the novel, and there's no bigger message/moral/story other than the selfish protagonist's often shallow individual concerns. In young adult literature specifically, I've also been turned off by a couple of books in which the teenage protagonist doesn't feel like a real person but like an insulting stereotype of what the author thinks teenagers are like. Additionally, I struggle with stories in which there's a significant gap between what I versus the protagonist find romantic. Unless overtly satiric and well-handled, I resent books in which the main character's attracted to behavior that strikes me as abusive or obsessive rather than romantic. In terms of really personal preferences, I do have two things that can throw me off perhaps disproportionately: cruelty to animals, especially dogs, and infidelity. I'm as crazy about dogs as I am books and passionate about preventing their mistreatment. Usually, animal abusers in fiction are bad guys. However, there are many cases in which a sympathetic character will hit a dog once and it's okay because they were going through a tough time and it was once and everyone knows it's okay to hit once, especially if you've had a bad day. For dogs and people alike, I fiercely believe once is abuse, too. So even these otherwise likable characters who lash out (JUST ONCE!) at their dog when they're at rock bottom become forever irredeemable in my mind. As for infidelity, I'm referring to cheating while in a committed relationship, be it a marriage or not. This is a convoluted, emotionally charged issue, and I don't want to wander away from literature and into philosophy. Of course, it depends on how the content's handled, but I've read a few books in which a female protagonist either cheats on her boyfriend or is the other woman and we're supposed to feel bad for her (rather than the one being cheated on), since she feels so guilty. After all, she just can't fight her attraction. While some skilled writers appeal more strongly to my empathy than others and paint compassionate portraits of how someone might reach this point, I'm immediately repelled by the simplistic characters who, bottom line, put themselves before everyone else and I'm never drawn in by the claim "I couldn't help myself.” (My frustration with that mentality is a big part of why I don't like vampire fiction, but that's another topic!)

Your turn. Do you need to like the protagonist to like the book? Why or why not? Can you think of books you loved even though you didn't like the main character? Books you hated because the main character is so awful? Characters you still liked despite a few traits/actions you didn't?

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