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Do we need to like the lead character to enjoy the book?

Do we need to like the lead character to enjoy the book?

A review that I recently received for my first novel has got me thinking.
How important is the reader’s engagement with the key characters of a novel to their overall appreciation of the story? I suspect that the answer to this question is essentially a very personal one. Some of us place great emphasis upon plot, whilst others absorb ourselves and revel in the writing style of our favourite authors. For others, their enjoyment is based almost solely upon the exploits of the main protagonists.

Of course, for the majority of intelligent readers, it is a combination of these factors that we are looking for in a good book. However, it is difficult to feel fully engaged with a narrative, however gripping, if we dislike the hero or heroine.
My favourite literary characters are a fairly disparate bunch; from Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables to John Rebus and Kay Scarpetta. As readers, we are happy to ignore flaws and mistakes, as these are all elements of everyday existance and make our heroes more believable. But for me, personally, I like them to get it right in the end; whatever slip-ups have occurred along the way. What I find frustrating, is when a character never develops at all- especially throughout a series. To read about them falling into the same old traps and experiencing the same old relationship difficulties novel after novel can become grating.
But we must remember that whether or not we connect with a character is as personal a decision as whether we like the people we meet in everyday life. Currently, my husband and I are enjoying the second series of scandi drama, The Bridge. We really like the leads, Saga and Martin and their wonderfully ambiguous and unconventional relationship. It has become a cliche to create a hero with emotional and behavioural ‘issues’, but when it is well written and acted, I am prepared to overlook it.
Essentially, we have to feel some kind of empathy with the protagonist; we need to worry when they are in peril and quietly rejoice when things go well. For me, I find my characters are almost like friends. When I sit down to write, I am keen to find out what will happen to them next. Often, as the plot develops, it gradually becomes clear what impact the events will have upon the characters. I don’t always know what this will be when I start out, so it is as much of a surprise to me as it is to the reader. I believe that in essence, this why I enjoy writing.
There are times, however, when a character is so irritating to us that we simply cannot carry on reading. I can think of several cases where I have found this and, very occassionally, I have seemed to be the only one who felt this way. But it’s personal- and I suspect that we do need to feel that empathy and that abstract connection in order to really enjoy the piece. I don’t think you can create a believable story without it.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Not at all – American Psycho and We Need To Talk About Kevin are both powerfully compelling and enjoyable (if not to everybody’s taste) reads. But they both feature unlikeable and, at times, outright disgusting lead characters. Breaking Bad was an interesting case in point – whereby Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, set out to see if an audience would stay with a TV show where the lead protagonist went from hero to villain. Would their interest in the narrative sustain them once they’d lost all empathy for the character? Of course, it was a triumphant exercise.


    January 19, 2014
    • I do agree Gareth. But, do these characters, despite their horrific actions, still possess certain traits that we do actually like? Often, the villainous anti-hero is also rather witty and humourous. Or, they are targetting victims who we would actually quite like to murder ourselves! (not in real life, of course). I certainly agree that viewers/readers crave something more than the typical lead. I just suspect the writers are still adding characteristics to these individuals that are on some level endearing- even if it is very deeply buried. I’m glad you mentioned these examples, as I know plenty of people who loved these shows, although I’ve not watched them myself.


      January 19, 2014
  2. Very good post. I found Dani from Game of Thrones annoying!


    January 19, 2014
  3. Great post! I agree that yes, you have to like the protagonist at least a little to find the book enjoyable. That can, however, include those irritating characters that one is supposed to hate, but can’t help liking. The true nature of the protagonist does not matter so much as their likeableness.


    January 19, 2014
  4. Reblogged this on The RetroReview.


    February 17, 2017

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