How many of you readers out there have had the following conversation?
You: Did you like that book?
Friend: No, I hated the main character.
It's surprised me over the years to discover how many people cannot invest in a story with an unlikable protagonist, even if that's the author's intent. It pains me, to be honest! As a reader, I can think of so many brilliant books that don't rely on a lovable protagonist to hook readers. As a writer, I ensure all my characters have flaws of some kind, and do have a few lead characters who will doubtless rub someone or other the wrong way...yet I hope their shortcomings are essential to the story.
It brings to mind a conversation I had in an art gallery this summer. I visited New York and the Guggenheim. As I turned my attention to the very first piece I passed, a stranger came up to me, leaned over, and whispered, "Do you like it?" Before I could answer, she added in a very serious, skeptical tone, "Now be honest." What immediately popped into my mind was something I had heard someone else say at a conference: "the point of art isn't to like or dislike it." We often think in those terms, but they're simplistic. In terms of visual art, like and dislike often refer more to aesthetic. For written arts, we usually mean "liking" as a measurement of enjoyment. Except there's more to art than that. To the woman, I joked, "I wouldn't put it in my living room, but I'm glad it's here in the museum." If by like, she meant, "Is it pretty?," my answer would be no. However, other factors still appealed to me and made me think and I'm glad I saw it. Art isn't always about simple enjoyment, but sometimes about pushing ourselves out of comfort zones. Steering the focus back to literature, I can think of books that I didn't like - perhaps because the story's too scary for me, or there's a depressing ending, or vivid, gory scenes - but that doesn't mean I think it's a bad book. Rather that, when it comes to tastes and preferences, this book falls outside what speaks to me. Stephen King is a great example. His work, especially the strictly horror stuff, doesn't appeal to me, but I nevertheless consider him a fantastic writer. If we're talking straightforward enjoyment, I didn't like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's about a girl with an eating disorder...and it's depressing and discomforting. However, if we stretch our definition of "like" wider than enjoyment, I loved that book. It's thought-provoking and well-handled, in particular with how Anderson zeroes in on Lia's consuming obsession with a number on a scale and forcing that number lower, lower, lower.
Returning specifically to protagonists, though, no, I don't need to like the protagonist to like the book. What I need is to be invested in the story, and, while an endearing lead character can do the trick, there are other ways to catch my attention. Yes, unlikable protagonists can ruin a book for me, but whether or not I like the protagonist isn't equivalent to whether or not I like the book. So what's the difference between an unlikable main character who doesn't taint the entire story and one who makes you set that book down permanently? My answer is abstract and challenging to measure, but it often comes down to what I interpret as the author's intent. Obviously, I could be mistaken, but I usually get a sense for protagonists meant as satiric characters, or those that we're expected to resent or dislike a little while still investing in their struggles. The problem comes when I suspect the author's blind to her protagonist's faults and expects her readers to actually love this horrid character. Be they a Mary Sue ideal or utterly off-putting with too many faults to list, I need to feel like the author formed the protagonist this way for a reason.
Of course, I have read books in which the protagonist did turn my opinion against the book. In young adult literature specifically, I've also been turned off by a couple of books in which the teenage protagonist doesn't feel like a real person but like an insulting stereotype of what the author thinks teenagers are like. Additionally, I struggle with stories in which there's a significant gap between what I versus the protagonist find romantic. Unless overtly satiric and well-handled, I resent books in which the main character's attracted to behavior that strikes me as abusive or obsessive rather than romantic.
Your turn. Do you need to like the protagonist to like the book? Why or why not? Can you think of books you loved even though you didn't like the main character? Books you hated because the main character is so awful? Characters you still liked despite a few traits/actions you didn't?