A few weeks ago, I came across this essay on the Huffington Post’s books section. Written by Evan Gottlieb, an English professor at Oregon State University, it asks the question whether it is imperative for readers to identify with the main character in the books they read.
Gottlieb says that this is something new with readers, most likely because of the advent of psychologically complex characters in the 19th century. Before, the thoughts and actions of protagonists weren’t as deep and were mostly symbolic. Now, they are more realistic.
So does that mean all protagonists have to be relatable to any potential reader?
If, as Gottlieb points out, relatable means “likable”. In that case, I would say that is not always necessary. I’ve read books where I didn’t like the main character but enjoyed the book anyway. The Kite Runner didn’t have Amir as a likable protagonist, but the story was amazing. Louis in Interview With The Vampire was whiny, but it was a very entertaining book. From what I’ve been hearing, the popular novel, Gone Girl, has unlikable characters but is a very good story.
However, you might recall my review of Kushiel’s Chosen, where I made it clear that I couldn’t stand the main character, Phedré, and almost put the book down for good because of her. On Amazon and Goodreads, there are many reviews where people say they couldn’t enjoy or even finish a book because the protagonist was so unlikable.
So there is a need for likable characters. However, is it plausible? Meaning, do all main characters have likable or even interesting for a story to be told?
Not necessarily, and here’s an example: perhaps many of us read or saw the movie A Clockwork Orange in college. Now, Alex is wholly an unlikable character! But Anthony Burgess’ book continues to receive good reviews not because Alex is such a lovable, caring, sweet protagonist whom we root for from beginning to end (Ha! I can’t believe I used those words, even mockingly).
That is because Burgess has a point to make about forcing people to be good, and torturing them to stop being bad. The book makes the reader ponder what is the right or wrong way to stop antisocial behavior, plus show that even the justice system can be worse than the criminal.
See, who Alex is isn’t the point of the story – it is what happens to him that is the point.
I think some books require the protagonist to be liked and others don’t. I can’t see a romance novel being successful if the main character is widely disliked, but a thriller can call for a less than likable one.
Evan Gottlieb’s essay ends off with these lines which ring true:
There are, of course, many other good reasons to read literature: for entertainment, for instruction, for inspiration. But from the 18th century onward, novels have shown themselves to be remarkably effective, durable technologies for encouraging us to extend our understanding to others, no matter how different or unlikable they might initially appear. And if that isn’t a good reason to pick up a good book, then I don’t know what is.