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Saturday Book Discussion: Do you have to like the characters?

An interesting issue came up repeatedly in last week's Saturday Book Discussion: people who hated books because they hated the characters.


Heathcliff

I'm an asshole. You're not supposed to like me.


Wuthering Heights was repeatedly mentioned. Now, I did not really love Wuthering Heights myself, but I do think it was a ground-breaking and important book and a work of genius by its tormented, angsty, worldly-unwise, and too-short-lived author.

A lot of people seem to hate it because they were expecting it to be a romance and it's not. I can understand being disappointed if you were expecting Mr. Darcy and you get an abusive psychopath who hangs his wife's dog and digs up the corpse of his ex-love. But that was the point of the book, and what makes it so powerful and interesting, even if it has misled generations of angsty young readers ever since.

Another example mentioned more than once: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Because (mild spoiler here, but the series is over 30 years old and the "spoiler" part happens in the first few chapters): the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is an unlikable misanthrope, and rapes a girl early in the book.

I can't speak for the series as a whole, because I read Lord Foul's Bane many years ago, and found it too tedious to continue the series, but it was my impression that Donaldson had deliberately created an unlikable protagonist whom the reader was meant to despise, at least initially. Suffering from leprosy, isolated from his family, and now believing himself to be in a literal fantasy world that is a product of his own delusions, Thomas Covenant is a selfish, self-pitying misanthrope who rapes his host's daughter because he doesn't believe she's real. It's my understanding (not having read the rest of the series) that his story arc is meant to be one of self-realization and atonement.

Now, it's certainly fair to despise the books because you just don't enjoy them, or because you think that the author did not write a convincing redemption arc, or even because you believe atonement for a rapist is impossible. But — is an unlikable main character a fatal flaw when the character is meant to be unlikable?

That's my question for the day: do you have to like the character(s) to enjoy a book?

I've read a lot of books with unlikable main characters. The ones I liked were those in which the author clearly knew what (s)he was doing; the ones I didn't were those in which I got the impression that the author liked the character and meant for the reader to like the character too. This isn't so much an issue of authorial intent, but the degree of self-awareness evident in the writing. All those YA authors who write abusive control-freak Magical Boyfriends don't suck because they created an asshole as a love interest (a tradition that goes back to before the Brontës), but because they created an asshole as a love interest whom the reader is apparently supposed to think is haaaaawt.

So, unlikable characters, to me, can be interesting. Unlikable characters whose flaws appear to be unexamined and unrealized are annoying.

What do you think?

Previous Saturday Book Discussions.
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