Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unlikable characters

I was reading some customer reviews of a biographical memoir the other day. (I call it a "biographical memoir" because the author had personally known the biography's subject, and the author's personal remembrances were woven in with the biography.) I've read the book and enjoyed it--in fact, I've checked it out of the library a few times and now I'm thinking I should just go ahead and buy it. So I was on the book's online page, debating whether to order it now or wait a bit before bringing yet MORE books into this house, when something struck me about the customer comments.

Several of the reviewers had favorable comments about the author's writing (and I agree), but there were also comments about the subject of the biography. Specifically, many people found the subject to be less than charming. Fascinating perhaps, compelling yes, but not likable. And I realized how many times I've seen reviews and comments about books, and had conversations myself about books, that involve this simple subjective evaluation: do we like the characters?

Readers usually prefer to like someone--though not necessarily everyone--in a book. But they don't seem to mind having characters they "love to hate." After reading Wuthering Heights, I wondered if anyone really likes Heathcliff and Cathy. They certainly give readers every reason to dislike them. Yet this book has found readers, generation after generation, and its most pleasant characters are totally overshadowed by the cruel pair. Then there are Alex in A Clockwork Orange; Rochester in Jane Eyre; Humbert Humbert in Lolita ... characters who do despicable things, characters we wouldn't choose as friends, but whose stories we read nonetheless. I admire all three of those books without admiring those characters.

So I don't think characters must be likable. They must only be interesting.

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