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.