Do You Have to Like the Characters to Enjoy a Story?

by poppycoxhead

I was having a The Book Group marathon the other day (any UK readers remember that TV show?) and they were having a discussion about, you guessed it, books. One of the characters was lamenting the fact that an author couldn’t write characters that were likeable. In reply, one of the characters said, ‘do you think you have to like a character to enjoy a story?’ and it got me thinking.

Do we have to like a character to enjoy a story? Of course not. There are so many stories with dislikeable characters and even protagonists, but when you are formulating your characters, do you make a conscious decision about whether the reader will like them or does it just happen? Do you have tendencies to whether you write about likeable people or do you love writing a character who is so utterly vile that it’s impossible to like them?

Then I had a thought – perhaps it’s not necessarily if we like a character, it’s whether we can empathise with them. When I’m reading, after a while, I tend to de-construct the characters a little. Do I like/dislike any of the characters? It’s much easier to empathise with a character if you can find something about them that you can identify with, even if the character is not a pleasant one. For example, if they’re having a hard time, or if they have a character trait that is similar to one of mine.

Also, there is the glorious fact of character development. At some point in the story, many characters will change, for the worse or the better, so there is a high likelihood that you may even for a short while, like a character. But even if you don’t, it is not necessary to like a character, even a main protagonist, at all, during the course of a book, to enjoy a story, surely?

To delve in even deeper, if a person is not one iota likeable, why are they this way? In many cases, in fiction anyway, there is a reason, which may be explained, that a character is the way that they are so they are sometimes merely victims of their circumstances, giving them a backstory, thus making you warm to them.

Bottom line: If you read / write a story, do the characters have to be likeable or relatable for you to enjoy it or is a story a story, regardless of what you think of them?

21 Comments to “Do You Have to Like the Characters to Enjoy a Story?”

  1. I don’t have to like them but they have to have strong motivations. Weak characters — and ones I hate — are those who do things without me knowing why/the author showing me as the reader,

  2. When I’m reading a story, I like it when the villains and the protagonists are more than one-sided characters because it helps me to understand their motivations better. One excellent TV show that I’ve been watching lately has had the protagonists showing a little more of their bad side and the villains showing a bit more of their good side. To my mind, this makes all the characters in that show much more interesting and less generic.

  3. Great post and I agree – for main characters I have to empathise in some way we them, I can get annoyed by their choices or if they’re really blind if it’s part of their personality and they grow by the end and learn from their mistakes. And it’s good having one character you dislike too if they are destroyed in the end 🙂

  4. As long as the characters are well developed, three dimensional types, I’m okay with it. I like to know there’s a reason for them being the way they are. Let’s face it, I don’t like every person I meet. I’m certainly not going to like ever character I read about. ;0

  5. Great post! It’s interesting, I was thinking about this earlier on, and a particular book too – An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. I loved it, but a close friend with relatively similar taste in books to me hated it, and we worked out that it came down to the main character, who was a bit of an arse, but who I still found fascinating. My friend couldn’t get past how much she hated this character, and just couldn’t empathise with him.

  6. The “Book Group” should have analysed the characters from “The Wire” – that would have been interesting! 😀

    When I write/read, I don’t like to abhor the main character. It gives me a bad feeling in my gut. But if there’s some trait with which I can empathise, usually I can get past it. Most of the time, generic heroes/heroines just leave me with a blase feeling; I can’t even remember their names once I put down the book in question.

    But, if the character is, let’s say, very clever, I might enjoy that. For example, on a very basic level, I really like The Joker in the Batman mythos, just because he is so gleefully twisted! Batman’s one of the world’s greatest detectives, yet this maniac can occasionally outwit him, and it makes for a great game of reading. (I know that many people will turn up their noses at my mentioning of comic books, but you can’t fault them for creating wonderful archetypes.)

    Even the heroes I like tend to have traits for which I don’t particularly care. I think that makes them well-rounded characters. I also think that a topic like this has a lot to do with just that: what *I* think. It’s all personal relativity.

    Nice post! (Now, I may have to go back and watch “Book Group” again … I’ve always loved Michelle Gomez!)

  7. Hm, it’s an interesting one. To give an example outside of reality I love the Soookie Stackhouse series and I think Sookie makes a fantastic heroine, but I don’t particularly like her – she’s selfish, can be very vain and silly, has a very hypocritical and sanctimonious sense of right and wrong and doesn’t question or understand her judgements etc. etc. I don’t relate to her at all, but then I could never be in her position and dealing what what she does so I don’t need to relate to her. It’s more than a great plot compensating for a protagonist that I don’t like on a personal level, because I love her as a protagonist and the way she fits into the plot. The same goes for my favourite book, The Sopranos, by Alan Warner, which has a real setting. I don’t relate to the characters, and I probably wouldn’t like them if I met them, but at the same time I believe in them and engage with them and really care about their story.

    So I think for me a book needs believable characters that fit their story. I don’t necessarily need to like them or relate to them, but I need to believe in their world. I think it’s more obvious to me when it doesn’t work and when I’m reading a book where I find myself thinking I don’t care about you or your story, because that’s when clearly the protagonist doesn’t pull off what they need to.

  8. I have to find someone I can empathize with in a book or I’m not going to read or recommend it. I just can’t get into a book where I don’t like or respect or care about anyone in it, or in what’s going on. There are so many books out there, I’ll just put it down and go on to the next one.

  9. In fiction, I do need to like a major character to some extent. Not necessarily all characters, but there does need to be an empathetic hook somewhere. And, even if I don’t like a character from a personality perspective, I do need to have some shared values with that character in order to like him or her.

  10. I don’t have to “like” the characters in a novel, but they have to be interesting, and as pointed out, more than one-dimensional. The plot and subject matter is what keeps me in a book, but I have to be able to “see” the characters in my mind. I don’t think it’s good characterization if I have to flip back pages to remember who someone is.

  11. I don’t have to like them, but I have to enjoy them. I could enjoy a truly evil person in a novel that I wouldn’t go within 100 feet of in real life. I think the key thing is that the characters have to elicit some form of emotion in me, but it doesn’t have to be a positive one as long as there are other characters that are satisfying my need for positive emotion!

  12. I absolutely have to like the characters. Well, it’s not that I have to like them, as much as I have to be able to relate to them. If there’s a bad guy, I need to be able to hate him with a little part of me wanting to see him take down the good guy. The protagonist needs to be like a real human being – it needs to seem like I’m reading about one of my best friends.

    Characters make up the story. The plot can be weak, and the idea shaky, but if you have good characters to make it through all that, then you have a good book.

  13. I recall a letter Jane Austen wrote when she was working on Emma where she says something to effect of (heavily paraphrased), “I’m creating a heroine that no one will like but me.” Do we have to create likable characters? Heavens I hope not. How completely boring would that be? Instead I think every character, good, bad, or otherwise, should have something that we connect to. Even villains should have something for us to connect to.

  14. Very true! I often find the most memorable characters to be those that are tragically flawed. When I like a character, I enjoy them during the book but may forget them after. If my heart breaks for a character who just can’t seem to get a grip, my heart continues to break long after. I want to reach into the pages and fix everything – I obviously can’t fix fiction, which makes it so powerful. Great post!

  15. There has to be at least one character that I find interesting. I don’t have to like them, just find them interesting. If I don’t care about the characters, There is no chance I will finsh the story.

  16. I think “like” is such a vague word because it can mean different things to different people. I prefer “sympathetic”. I think a character in addition to being changed at the end, has to have sympathetic qualities throughout the entire novel–even if it is nothing more than his awareness that he needs to change or find a way out of his dilemma.

    As long as I can hope for the protag, that he’ll get through his ordeal, overcome his bad side, then that is enough for me to stick with him and his story.

  17. In my current book, I am working on writing a character that I hope readers will hate. But I want readers to hate him so much that they can’t wait to see how hateable he can be in the end. I know its not the same as those characters we simply dislike and think needed more personality or could have been left out, but I am having a blasting writing a character the world will despise.

  18. Ooo you definitely don’t have to like them. If you can empathise with them to some degree then that’s what you want. So long as they bring something out in you, be that a giggle, or a nod or a sense of ‘yeah, I do that too.’

    Even in the series of books I just finished reading there was one character who, by the end of it, I just couldn’t stand. She was awful; self centred, selfish, rude and clueless about all the terrible things she was doing to her friends. It didn’t stop me racing through all eight books to see what happened to her though; she’s a GREAT character.

  19. Hmm tough one, I think if if it’s the main character (esp if it’s 1st person), we have to feel some connection with the character otherwise it’s tough to get through. So, definitely have to be interested, not necessarily ‘like’ as such. Really got me thinking, great post Poppy. x

  20. I would agree that one probably needs to empathise with the protagonist. However, for other characters, it is probably enough that one understands them enough to be able to write them convincingly.

    However, having said that, I wrote a horror story, ‘The Hunger’ where the main character was absolutely vile. … I guess the ‘character’ that one empathises with is the ‘monster’; particularly as it is the means of the protagonist’s downfall. I tried to understand the main character and got advice from someone I know who is obsessed with serial killers, but I certainly didn’t ‘empathise’ with him.

    In another story ‘Roadrunner’ the protagonist is selfish, thoughtless, and bigoted, there isn’t a lot to like about him at first however he is brought down to earth, learns about the real world and, hopefully, the reader gets to empathise with him.

    On the TV front, what about “The Wire”? A perfect example of how to write terrible characters whom one is drawn to empathise with. (Just read Mayumi’s comment. Great minds huh?)

  21. I’m right on with Mayumi’s comment too! I also loved “The Wire.” I would never have thought I would like drug dealers?!

    I do think there’s a personal element. I read a Marilyn Robinson book in a book club that depressed me because of my background. I did not enjoy the book even though it was well-written, but it seemed to be a very personal reaction according to the other members of my book club.

    This was a thoughtful post and great comments!

Limebird Writers Love To Peck At Comments! :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: