What Readers Want – What If I Don’t Like Your Characters?

what readers want logoAs an author, do you ever struggle with a decision about your book and wonder, “What would a reader say?” You probably aren’t the first author to wonder about that same thing. Indies Unlimited has two reviewers on our staff, the fabulous Cathy Speight and venerable Mr. BigAl, who are here representing readers. In this series, we’ll pose your questions to them for their take and encourage other readers to weigh in with their thoughts.

First the question from the author:

An author asks, “What would make you keep reading a story with characters that are essentially unlikable?”

Not explicitly stated, but I think implied in this question is that they’re wondering about the protagonist(s) or main characters. We probably aren’t talking about the villain or antagonist of the story, who usually have a lot of unlikable characteristics. But what if everyone who plays a significant role in the story is unlikable; is there still a possibility of a story that will appeal to readers?

This is a tricky question to answer because there are probably readers out there who are okay with things I’m not, and others who wouldn’t be with things that I’d be more than cool with. At least to some degree, what is going to fly, with me or with other readers, is going to depend on genre and the expectations that sets up.

For example, if you’re writing in the romance genre and both the hero and heroine are unlikable, what reader is going to care whether they end up together? They might believe they deserve each other, but not enough to go along for the ride as they search for their evilly-together-ever-after.

Indie author Edward Lorn has a series of thrillers featuring a character named Larry Laughlin. He’s an evil man who for years worked as a hitman. Post-retirement I think the corpses have stacked up faster than they did when murdering was his job. If he was the antagonist in a story, you’d dislike him. Dislike him a lot. However, in this series Larry’s victims are pedophiles and others who prey on children. His backstory involving years of molestation by his father gives the reader a reason to sympathize with him, especially considering the people he’s killing are worse than he is. At least now, while his methods aren’t socially acceptable, he’s on the right side. He may not be likable, but it is still easy to pull for him to prevail. (Many who would abhor vigilante justice in real life, will applaud it in fiction. Apparently I’m one of those myself.)

In most genres, a story is better if the characters have some nuance. An antagonist with some good qualities or sympathetic characteristics is best, just as a protagonist who isn’t perfect, is better than one with no faults. The story is more true to life this way. However, it is possible to go too far. How far is too far depends on the situation. My two examples provide some clues. The shortest way to give a straight answer is to say that the story has to have something to make the reader care how the main story conflict turns out. That doesn’t have to be because the reader likes the main character.

In the example of the romance, since the genre requires an ending where the hero and heroine find a happily-ever-after or at least happily-for-now ending, you can’t dislike either at the end. They can frustrate you, do stupid things (both almost sure to happen), but never go so far as to be unredeemable in the reader’s eyes, or the book is going to hit the recycle bin mid-story.

The Larry Laughlin stories work for two reasons. One is that the character of Larry isn’t completely unlikable, due to his history and who his victims are. That violates the premise of the question. However, Larry could be much less sympathetic. Maybe take away his history of being molested and make him a character who just loves to kill. The story would still be redeemed for many readers because he is exterminating people who the world is better off without. Also, the stories typically have another character who is likable, and whose life will be made better if Larry is successful in finding and eliminating whoever he’s after. The reader would care about the other character, even if they couldn’t stand Larry.

How about other readers? What does a book need to have for you to stick with it, even if you don’t care about the main character?

If you have a question you’d like considered for our “What Readers Want” series, drop us a line by using the contact form. Please put “What Readers Want” as the subject line. Cathy and BigAl will choose from the questions submitted for future posts. Please make sure to let us know if you want to remain anonymous. If you’re lucky, they’ll both answer your question. Maybe they’ll even agree with each other.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

17 thoughts on “What Readers Want – What If I Don’t Like Your Characters?”

  1. Personally, speaking as a reader and not as a writer, I do not enjoy books that do not have characters with some redeeming qualities. I look for the good in people in real life, too, and if I don’t see any in the characters in a book it depresses me. I don’t want to stay in that world.

  2. I don’t have to like the characters, exactly, but I do have to at least understand where they’re coming from, even if they’re evil. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my favorite books and I disliked every single character in it. But they were so complex and layered it kept me reading, if for no other reason than trying to make sense out of the choices they made.

  3. Previously all my work has been non-fiction, and the characters I wrote about were who they were. I tried to portray them as they were and not add any slant or additional colour, as they were mostly colourful enough.
    Now, as one who has come lately to writing fiction, you offer a most interesting and thought provoking topic, one I know I’ll have to think about. Today I handed my publisher the manuscript for my second novel. I wonder if I would have changed anything if I’d read this before?
    Thanks for the lesson anyway.

  4. Interesting. I don’t have to “like’ the protagonists. For me, they need to be relatable, redeemable, and at least learning through the arc of the story to get beyond their broken edges and get to a better place. Even if they have to keep screwing up to get there.

  5. This is interesting. I read one book in which the two main characters were extremely unlikeable. This had quite a surprising consequence. You were somewhat compelled to read the book because you wondered how much more unlikeable they could become: an arrogant, cheating, husband, a bland wife, unbearably precocious children. When wife finds out about cheating husband, wham…a hand grenade is hurled into the plot. What then happens is you gradually come to actually like the characters. Quite extraordinary. When I expressed this in a review, the author commented that this was exactly what she intended. But it was clever…because you never realised you’re being ‘duped’ into liking the characters.
    Sadly, I have read books where the author has had no such intentions, with the most boring, mundane and emotionless characters. Not so much unlikeable, but I felt nothing, absolutely nothing for them. What made me finish the books? Firstly, my vow to complete all books I start, secondly, incredulity…at the cheek of an author to present such a character, thirdly…hope. I always have hope I’ll be wrong.

  6. Barbara Kingsolver has written a couple of my favorite books, and I have read all her novels. But when her novel, The Lacuna, came out, I struggled to finish it. The protagonist was a fellow I just couldn’t like. I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t like him, either. I didn’t feel anything but “meh.” I wouldn’t have finished the book at all, except Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were prominent characters in it, and I love them. But if they hadn’t been in the book, I wouldn’t have finished it. I don’t necessarily have to love a book’s protagonist, but why would I want to spend so many hours with someone who inspired only a “meh”?

  7. Thanks for all the comments. I think Laurie and Lynne hit on one instance where you don’t have to like any characters. That’s if you can see a chance the protagonist is redeemable. You see a glimmer of potential there.

  8. I won’t mention the name of the book because of possible spoilers, but our book club chose a novel in which one of the two main characters was incredibly selfish and the other just … went along with it, and there were dire consequences because of their actions (and inactions.) The characters never redeemed themselves, either. The only reason I forced myself to finish the book was because it was for our club. I ended up despising these characters so strongly that I thought, hm, that’s a pretty good writer to be able to evoke such strong feelings in a reader! There’s an ongoing debate on the Goodreads review section of the book. Some hated the characters. Others felt you shouldn’t judge the book just because you didn’t like the characters. Well, I gave it two stars. I have to at least believe the characters would change by the end of the story, and if they don’t, then I just can’t like the book itself.

    1. Candace, that’s exactly what I thought about We Need to Talk About Kevin – if an author can make me react that strongly to characters, even in a negative way, she’s done a pretty good job!

  9. I have to like the main characters to enjoy the book enough to finish it. There’s one incredibly popular novel that has main characters who are intensely dislikable. So dislikable that I almost quit the book, despite the other things it had going for it.

    With this in mind, I really think it depends on the reader. I have to like the MC on some level to keep going. But, I don’t know that it’s a prerequisite for a lot of readers.

  10. Interesting question. I know in TV I’ll watch unsympathetic characters, like Tony Soprano, but there’s not much effort involved. In books, suspense might carry me through. I give up quickly in one situation: the character is cruel, and the author seems to be okay with that. The protagonist says or does mean things (as opposed to just thinking them — I have some tolerance for that), and it appears that we’re actually supposed to root for her to win. It’s tricky to carry off black comedy for just this reason. I think that’s why publishers aren’t too fond of that genre. It sure works in the movie “Trainwreck,” though. I’m trying to think why. Some combination of 1) There’s an even worse villain in her boss, 2) You kinda see how she got that way, 3) The gags are hysterical, and 4) Someone good sees value in the main character, and that relationship ultimately redeems her.

  11. On the flip side of redeemable, if a character is too likeable, then they’re a bit boring. Everyone has some bit of nasty down there somewhere. If a character is likeable, I want to know the nasty too.

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