Musings From A Bookmammal

Monday Musings–The Case of the Unlikeable Character


Click here to play along!

Click here to play along!

Musing Mondays is a weekly meme hosted by MizB that asks you to muse about one of several “bookish” questions… or, you can just ramble on about anything you like that pertains to books! You can join in by clicking the graphic above. Go ahead–it’s fun!

Here’s my Musing Monday ramble for this week:

book stackIs it necessary to LIKE the characters in a book in order to like the book itself?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve recently read two novels featuring very unlikeable characters—yet, both books have been memorable and both are books that I’d recommend to others.

Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison is a psychological thriller that is often compared to Gone Girl. The two main characters are not folks that I’d ever choose to call friends—especially the main male character, who possesses one of the most despicable personalities I’ve read in a long time. However, I found the plot of the book intriguing, I liked the technique of using alternating viewpoints, I was anxious to find out how the book ended, and I still find myself thinking about the plot from time to time.

I  just finished listening to the audiobook version of the novel The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  Again, none of the characters were particularly likeable—especially when certain things come to light at the end of the story. In fact, the  main character had such an intense rage simmering under the surface throughout the book that I almost found it overwhelming at times. Yet, again, I’m still thinking about the story and the characters from this novel days after I finished it.

So—how is it that I can have such intense feelings of dislike towards most of the characters in these two books, and, at the same time, say that I enjoyed these novels?  Why on earth would I want to spend valuable reading time with characters who I wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life?

In the end, I think it all comes down to the skill of the author. If a writer can create a whole book around an unlikeable character and still manage to keep me reading—then I greatly admire that kind of writing. It’s easy to hold a reader’s interest around a loveable or sympathetic character. It takes much more talent to keep me reading a book containing a main character who is off-putting. And as a reader, I simply have to admire the authors who are able to pull that off.

Here’s another way to look at it: There are plenty of biographies and history books written about people and events who aren’t particularly pleasant–yet people continue to buy and read those books. We don’t have to approve of a person or event to want to learn more about it. As an example, I’ve been fascinated by former US president Lyndon Johnson for years.  I’ve read many books about him—including the fabulous four-volume (so far!) biography series by Robert Caro. I don’t admire LBJ—there are many parts of his story and his actions that leave me shaking my head at his sheer arrogance—but I am endlessly intrigued by his very complicated personality and the effect his presidency had on future generations. Do I admire him? No. Do I want to continue to read and learn more about him? Absolutely!

So—what do you think? Do you continue to read a book when you realize it contains unlikeable characters? What keeps you reading such a book?  Or, are you a reader who prefers to focus your reading time on likeable, sympathetic characters? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here—please share your thoughts!

Author: bookmammal

I love books, reading, writing, cooking, eating, reading while eating, and sharing thoughts about all of the above–plus a bit more! I usually post about topics relating to books and literacy during the week, and then participate in a variety of non-bookish memes on the weekend. Please feel free to join in! Some random things about me– –I have multiple bookshelves in every room of my home except the bathroom. They’re all filled to bursting. They help to make my house my home. –I have two cats who I love dearly, but who I definitely do NOT dress in human clothing. Ever. –I’ve never had a cavity. –I make a mean spaghetti sauce. –I’m a newcomer to yoga and I love it. –My day is not complete without a little chocolate.

19 thoughts on “Monday Musings–The Case of the Unlikeable Character

  1. My answer is YES, I still continue to read a book when I realize it contains unlikeable characters. The last book I’ve read that fits into this category was The perfume – the story of a murderer by Patrick Suskind. The main character is a killer and there’s nothing likeable about him. But the story is so well written that I could wait to get to the last page.

    Here’s my musing:

  2. It’s strange and powerful how an author manages to keep us hooked! I didn’t agree with either Scarlett’s or Rhett’s characters in Gone with the Wind, but one has to has to keep reading 🙂

    • It’s been so long since I read Gone With The Wind that I didn’t think of that book as being an example of this, but you’re right. Both characters definitely made a lot of very questionable, unadmireable choices throughout that whole lengthy saga, but millions of us kept on reading right to the end.

  3. I have read books like that. Even though I did not like the characters I still liked the books.

  4. I think you’re right, it does come down to skill. The reader has to have some investment in the outcome, to care at least about what happens to the characters, even if you don’t like them. For me, and for many of my friends, Gone Girl filled me with rage because I did not care about those 2 assholes! They deserved each other and I just wished they’d get on with it. Conversely, with Perfume he was a terrible guy but I was fascinated by him and couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

    • Frankly I hated “Gone Girl” I was even sorry I read it. The only reason I bought it and read it was because of all the five star reviews. Now there is a movie to be made about the book. Well, I won’t be viewing that movie!

    • I really have got to read Perfume!
      It seems as though Gone Girl readers fall into two camps–you either loved it or hated it. I was more on the “loved it” side–even though, like you and your friends, I felt no connection to the two characters. Maybe it was that I found her previous two books so dark (not the characters, necessarily–but the subject matter) that I couldn’t bring myself to get through them, even though I do like Flynn’s writing style–and perhaps I was just glad to finally find a book by her that I actually wanted to read to the end. Again, it just keeps coming back again and again to the craft of the writing.

  5. I don’t need to like the characters to like the book, but I do need to like the writing style 🙂

  6. I mostly read YA because that’s what I write. Now I just joined this century and read Ender’s Game. And I hated Ender. He was just six years old when the book started, yet I still found him annoying and didn’t feel the sympathy I think the author intended. I kept reading because I found the premise interesting and kept thinking something would change my mind. I even went on to read the second book but I stopped there. I just fail to care what happens to Ender next. Now I love me some bad guys, you know, the ones with the checkered past, flawed, injured. I think that’s because there’s always the chance for redemption. But if I don’t have sympathy for the protag, then I’m less inclined to keep going, no matter how much I like the writing. (This is why I couldn’t get past the first couple chapters of Twilight!)

    • Hmmm…I’m trying to think of a character that I just couldn’t tolerate, no matter how good the writing was. I’m positive I’ve encountered this–I’m going to have to get back to you on this! 🙂

  7. I just finished a book about two weeks ago that I didn’t like one of the characters, however overall I did like the book. Each April I read a book or two about the Titanic. For some reason around the anniversary of it sinking it is on my mind, so I read books about it. Is that the same as being drawn to reading about a person in history. I do read a lot of books about JFK, I’m always drawn to things written about him and Jackie.

    • I’m also a huge fan of reading about all things Kennedy–again, there are many things about various members that aren’t exactly admirable, but I find the Kennedy family endlessly fascinating.

  8. I’ve read a lot of books with characters I don’t like. As long as I can connect to the story, I’m good. I did not like the characters in Gone Girl (as an example) but the story was compelling.

  9. Good question! I just finished The Emperor’s Children, one of Messud’s earlier books, and I didn’t really like anyone in it but definitely felt drawn into the story. I also started The Woman Upstairs, but her rage on the first page was so shocking I had to put it down. I’m still excited to read it though — she seems like an interesting person to spend time with (especially since I can choose how much time to actually spend with her).

    • Well, you’re right about the rage in The Woman Upstairs–that’s the biggest memory I have of the book. However, I think Messud did a great job of not letting it go over the top–it kinds of simmers there and every so often boils over. Really good writing!

  10. Actually, I’m not sure. I usually like all the characters so it’s not a problem for me. The last book I completely hated was The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (I’m sorry J.K. Rowling). I DESPISED every single character, which basically led me to hate the book completely.

    I know I’ve read some books where I didn’t care for the characters, and they were still really good. Can’t think of any at the moment.

    • Now that I’ve really been thinking about this, I guess that I’m more apt to set a book aside if I just don’t care for the writing. Good writing can overcome the reluctance to spend time with characters who I may not like.

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