Monday, February 25, 2013

Characters with Unlikeable Characteristics

While main protagonists in well-received novels have their share of fans, they also have their share of anti-fans, as I call them. On online venues, these anti-fans often justify their dislike for a character with reasons such as these: 

1. The character is whiny or breaks down too much.
2. The character is cold and unfeeling.
3. The character doesn't make the right decisions.
4. The character is passive about decision making.
5. The character doesn't seem to know what s/he wants.
6. The character is selfish.
7. The character isn't bright.
8. The character is too judgmental.
9. The character is boring.
10. The story is too character-driven.

Notice how these common character complaints are subtle foils of each other? 

Just because a character has an unlikeable characteristic, it shouldn't immediately make them an unlikeable character. I can root for a reasonably flawed character. Also taken into consideration is that I'm reading about the character within the context of the plot and setting they were developed for, and that s/he and I aren't trapped on an elevator together.

I'd often dismiss a review when a reader says they stopped reading the book after the first chapter(s) because they didn't like the character for a reason listed above, or something along those lines. Many main protagonists in books develop through the course of a story. Therefore, who a character is in the beginning of the story isn't necessarily who they are at the end of the story. (Although in some kinds of stories, certain characters don't undergo much change- for example, a sleuth in a mystery series is likely to maintain a consistent character- but for the purpose of this post, I'm going to focus on character arcs.)

I read THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett years ago. At the beginning of the story, I saw that Mary was cranky and Colin was self-pitying. I kept reading and was rewarded with seeing the two children transform. By the end of the story, Mary and Colin were not the same people they were at the beginning of the story.

Sometimes characters need flaws, especially at the beginning of the story, in order for them to demonstrate growth as the story progresses.

In my current WIP, the MC has what could be perceived as character flaws. For instance, she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. I imagine people who read the initial chapters of the book might dislike her for that very quality. But if this novel gets published (and it's a big IF), I hope people will read on and give my character a chance, and see how she evolves.

How often do you stop reading a book when you come across a main character with flaws?

Have you ever really liked a book even if you didn't enjoy the main character?


Rebecca Alexander said...

I think there needs to be something compelling about the character, even if they are flawed. Whiny but funny, cold but tortured, boring but self-sacrificing or whatever. I need to care about that character ( or at least be very interested) at the end of the first page, and I think that goes for a lot of readers looking through a novel in a book store. If I don't find something to like about a main character I don't think I would finish the book. I don't think character flaws make them unlikeable, they make them human, so a bit of a chip on the shoulder isn't going to worry me if they are a vivid, interesting person.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think that putting down a book in the opening chapter because you've made a snap judgment about the MC shows signs of shallow or surface reading. Main characters are supposed to grow and change as the story progresses. Of course, if they don't change, and you still don't like them, you might have a better argument. :)

S.P. Bowers said...

Yes, I have enjoyed books where I didn't like the MC. But to do that there has to be something in that character that makes her irresistible, that makes her worthwhile. I have put down books because I didn't like the characters and used the reasons you listed above. But it's not just those reasons, it's that there isn't anything beyond those characteristics in the character.

I love The Secret Garden and while the characters do start out whiny and self centered we can see there is more to them than that. They are multifaceted and we see not only their bad qualities but their endearing weaknesses and their tenacity. Some authors only paint one side of the character, and if it's an offsetting side and there's nothing else to grab onto, then people start putting the book down.

Unknown said...

The same can be said for many nonfiction/memoir type books. Although my favorite reading genre, there are plenty where the whining and self-indulgence cause me to shut the cover and declare the book unreadable.

Like a few have stated here, the character of Mary in The Secret Garden started out miserable, but we saw her as a young girl, being forced into an unknown situation-- we immediately had sympathy for her and forgave and even understood her mask of miserable demeanor. I think good characters can have undesirable characteristics if we see their goodness, plight or sympathetic qualities as well.

Unknown said...

Cynthia Dear,
As always, such a timely post! (Do you have a microphone planted in my house?)
My daughter and I were just discussing the merits of hanging with a book when there are no likeable characters from the get-go. We are such needy creatures--we readers. We need someone with whom to connect our fragile Ids (or is it Egos) and are so dissapointed when we do not immedietly connect with a book character.

My habit is a bit more end-focused. I often get worn out/disgusted with charecters when they don't evolve quickly enough for me. (Ever since Edna Pontellier let me down with that suicide at the end of "The Awakening".)
I have very little time in my life for whiners and slackers, and I have been known to dump a book two chapters from the end because I just can't take it any more! Get on with it!

Think I should switch to decaf?
~Just Jill

Mark Means said...

I think flawed characters are the best, especially if they evolve and change and are quite different by the end of the story.

It's something I always strive for when thinking of a character..."How are they broken?"

M.K. Louie said...

The Secret Garden is one of my favorite childhood stories. I think I should read it again soon... haven't read it in over a decade or so... eek!

Whenever a character prompts an emotional response from me, even negative, that's when I actually enjoy the book the most. I love anything that stimulates emotions. To me, that's a high-five to the author for accomplishing such a task.

Likewise, if the characters are 'good' but don't evoke anything from me, I get bored easily and will most likely stop reading the book.

DL Hammons said...

Never! A character that is "off" is not a good enough reason to abandon a my opinion.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

It's definitely possible to love a book without loving the MC. Some books are built around the character you love to hate ... others are rewarding despite the MC's flaws.

Where it's problematic for me is when the MC takes too long to put together the pieces that are right in front of him/her. After a while, it can seem unrealistic that the MC is still stuck in the old mindset or temperament if there has been ample opportunity for revelation and change.

Paul R. Hewlett said...

Great post! I don't think I have ever stopped reading a book except for one and it wasn't because of character flaws. Characters are human, and thus have flaws. I like to embrace them and see them grow as the story progresses.

Paul R. Hewlett

Unknown said...

The Secret Garden is a great example of a main character with flaws but who you end up loving. Love the ten point list.

Anonymous said...

I'm not interested in perfect characters and I read books hoping they change somehow.

Misha Gerrick said...

No. In fact, I think people who give up in the first chapter because of a character flaw are a bit ridiculous.

Cynthia said...

Rebecca: And it's possible to care about characters even if they are flawed.

Dianne: I agree it's important not to make snap judgements.

Sara: I agree that authors need to develop their characters well to maintain reader interest.

Julie: No one's perfect, so I do think that it would make sense for good guys to have flaws.

Jill: No, I don't have a microphone planted in your house, hehe!

Mark: That's a good insight!

Mike: I agree that a solid character should make us feel something, even if we're not perfectly fond of them.

DL: Sometimes "off" could be what makes the character interesting.

Jennifer: I've certainly gotten through books with a "character you love to hate."

Paul: I also appreciate seeing a character grow in a story.

Clarissa: Thanks!

Medeia: Sometimes a flawless character can lack authenticitiy.

Misha: I'd at least give it a few more chapters before I put the book down! =)

Elsie Amata said...

I don't think anyone should ever put a book down after the first chapter! That's simply way to soon, my goodness, you don't have five seconds to get to know anyone yet. I am guilty of not finishing a book halfway through and I've even stopped a book I loved because I had a feeling the MC was going to die so I cheated and checked the ending and sure enough...yep. So, I decided to go into denial mode. If I don't read it, it never happened.

Nicole said...

Good example with The Secret Garden. I love seeing characters change over time.

Laura S. said...

I expect the main character to have some kind of flaw, so that would never keep me from reading. It's odd that people would stop reading so soon early in a novel because of that; they must not really be into reading then!

Lynn Proctor said...

this was so interesting! the last book i started writing, kinda had me disliking the character i had created haha---sometimes in writing it could be that we can't relate because we have made them so opposite of ourselves or that they possess the qualities we dislike in ourselves

David P. King said...

I don't mind flawed characters (unless they are purposefully written, as in, the author tries too hard to give them flaws - don't happen very much from what I read), but I do expect them to grow. :)

Misha Gerrick said...

Same here. I'm actually reading a book like that right now, and I'm currently glad that I'm sticking for it. The story is interesting.

Anonymous said...

Such a great post -- my favorite characters usually have a weird quirk or go on a (not obvious) path to overcome a peculiar flaw.

Daisy Carter said...

I like characters with flaws, usually have a hard time reading a character who doesn't have a laundry list because they don't feel real. Plus, like you say, if they don't have flaws how can they grow?

I just finished reading Okay For Now by George Schmidt - talk about a flawed kid! - and I loved it. There was such a huge transformation of the MC's world because of how he interacted with it.

Post a Comment