Thursday 20 May 2010

On not liking characters...

Using Blogger's handy scheduled-posts function, I'm actually writing this last Saturday... but by the time you read this, I'll be fretting over my viva. I've handed in the first section of my DPhil, and an outline of the whole thing, and at noon on Friday I have to go and justify it to someone. I'm pretty dreadful at this sort of thing, so wish me luck... I won't find out the result for another two or three weeks, but at least this bit will be over.

So I'm just going to have a discussion point for today... I wrote about Jude the Obscure 'yesterday' (actually, last Saturday... or about ten minutes ago, for me) and it struck me during our book group discussion that I didn't like any of the characters in it - but I still liked the novel. There was some empathy for some of the characters, especially Mr. Phillotson (who somehow didn't even get mentioned yesterday, but he's, er, the fourth member of Abba, if you understand what I mean) but none of them were especially likeable.

I'm a firm believer that it's possible to like, even love, a novel without liking the character. Does anybody like Emma, Lizzie, Marianne, Elinor, Anne, Catherine, and Fanny? (As you can see, they're fighting it out in today's sketch.) Yet plenty of people love all Austen's novels. For the record, Anne is my black spot there... The fatal flaw is a unlikeable character whom the author wants you to like - but I didn't get that feeling with Hardy.

So... unlikeable characters; likeable novel. Is it possible - and, if so, examples please! And maybe let me know which Austen heroine rubs you up the wrong way, too...


  1. This is the subject of one of my favorite projects at Wuthering Expectations: Sympathetic Character Week, starting here.

    Wuthering Heights was central, but I also glanced at Lolita, The Good Soldier, Charles Baudelaire, Icelandic sagas, Madame Bovary, William Faulkner, and who knows what else.

    Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988) was a helpful guide.

  2. I often find that this is the case. Perversely, I find myself enjoying some books more when I dislike the character, appreciating the author's skill in crafting an engaging story that keeps me interested even as I am thinking dark thoughts about the lead.

    As much as I love Austen, I spend most of my time wanting to slap Marianne when I reread S&S and, depending on my mood, don't usually fare much better with Lizzie when I pick up P&P.

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  4. First two that came to mind were Lord of the Flies and 1984. Can't say I loved any of the characters in either of those novels, but I still loved the books.

    As for the Austen question, I sometimes find Catherine a bit obnoxious, but most of the time I just smile indulgently and move on.

  5. I totally agree with you about not needing to like characters ot like or even love a book. I am troubled when folks automatically discount a book just because they don't love the characters. I think that would lead to really limited reading horizons.

  6. Ohmigoodness, I LOVE Anne Elliot!

    I definitely don't think you need to like the character to like the book. But I think it depends on what you are reading the book for, too. For me, writing and language can always triumph over mediocre characters!

  7. I just finished A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and though I didn't like ANY of the characters, and in fact actively disliked most of them, I ended up liking the book.

    So far, none of Austen's heroines have disappointed me, but I've only read Sense and Sensibilities and Pride and Prejudice as of yet.

  8. Oh, shocked to the very core. Not liking Anne???!!! Sorry, I know that isn't the point. Elizabeth Taylor's Angel is surely a dislikable character in an excellent novel. And while we're on the topics of angel's Angel in Tess of the D'Urbervilles needs a big boot in the bum. Nobody in the Austen cast offends me. I have a whole string of reasons why Fanny is actually ok, thanks to Mary Waldron's book Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time. What a fun post!

  9. Just to send you good luck for the viva - they are THE biggest anti-climaxes, so I promise you there is nothing to worry about. You are much more likely to emerge saying 'Was that it?' But good luck nevertheless.

  10. When I read 'Catcher In the Rye' by J.D Salinger, I didn't particularly like the main character Holden Caulfield. However, I liked the novel because of its descriptions of New York. Also in a weird way, because Salinger created a character that can make me either like or hate and as characters are created by words on paper, surely it shows the sign of a good writer if they can provoke a reaction (good or bad)in a reader?

  11. Of course you don't have to like the characters! Most of those in The Master and Margarita are fairly unpleasant and yet it's a wonderful book. I too am completely baffled by anyone who writes off an excellent novel just because they wouldn't want to spend time in the company of the characters!

  12. Merenia beat me to it but Angel would be my top suggestion!

  13. I'm sorry, you DON'T like Anne Elliott?! Simon, we need to have words!

    I can't bear Harriet in Emma. She is so pathetic. I just want to smack her!

  14. I'm with Emily Jane - all the characters in a Confederacy of Dunces were foul.

    Also I didn't like Hilary Wainwright in Little Boy Lost - v.intellectual snob, but did feel huge sympathy for his situation, and it was an excellent book.

  15. I love lots of books in which I don't like the characters. The key for me is not whether characters are likable, but whether they're interesting, and lots of unlikable people are interesting.

    But for me, the real sign of a master writer is the ability to not just make unlikable characters interesting, but to make readers care about and sympathize with unlikable characters. Hardy is great for that. I hardly like an of his characters (including Tess!), but my heart aches for them just the same.

    And you don't like Anne?! My pick for least likable Austen heroine would have to be Emma. I just don't like a meddler--still, by the end of the book I care about her (wouldn't want to hang out with her, though).

  16. I have to admit that I don't generally warm to books if I don't sympathise with at least one of the characters. So long as there is one character I quite like, then it doesn't really matter if the rest of the cast are irritating.

    As for least favourite Austen heroine? I would normally say Emma, for her childish game playing and the impact it has on the lives of others, though Claire reminds me that Marianne Dashwood is also a bit tiresome. A personality test based on one's opinions of Austen characters would probably conclude from this that I prefer more sober, reflective types to passionate, headstrong romantics. I hope this wont offend anyone named Emma or Marianne, but even the names Anne and Elinor sound more level-headed and appealling to me! Having said that, I would also suggest that Anne and Elinor also feel things deeply, they simply choose to keep their feelings repressed, or believe that circumstances and propriety oblige them to do so.

  17. I think your key point is "The fatal flaw is a unlikeable character whom the author wants you to like". Though was it intentionally borrowed from a blog entry I wrote a couple of years ago?

    For example, I didn't get on with The Time Traveler's Wife because I found the two main characters unlikeable, when I think I was supposed to empathise.

  18. Amateur Reader - thanks for the link, what a great idea. WH definitely the first that springs to mind.

    Claire - Not Lizzie! (I now see why people are incensed when I admit not liking Anne)

    Read the Book - good examples...

    Thomas - absolutely agree!

    Aarti - *whispers* sorry...

    Emily - aww, my favourite heroines in those!

    Merenia - I've been told I must re-read Persuasion when I'm 30, so perhaps I'll change my mind... And Angel is a good example - novels where we're expressly supposed to dislike the character form another interesting category.

    Victoria - thanks! It felt pretty intense in the end, but we'll see...

    Spangle - in general I think you're right, creating a reaction is important. My problem with Catcher in the Rye is that I felt Salinger wanted us to like Holden, and I couldn't stand him... but maybe we weren't supposed to?

    Peter - we agree on something! Goodness me (heehee)

    Verity - agreed. Have you seen the film? Quite good, but they made Angel too empathetic a character.

    Rachel - oh dear, now I'm a leetle scared... I'll try again!! I do have a soft spot for Harriet - but I do quite like wet characters as well as feisty ones.

    Annabel - that's an interesting point: don't like the character, but feel for the situation. I think it takes a good writer like Laski to pull that off.

    Teresa - so true, for your second paragraph. And I'm very fond of Emma, though (like Marianne) I feel she's ended up in an awful marriage... Mr. Knightley is all well and good as an older brother figure, but not as a husband... and don't get me started on Colonel Brandon. I'm really intrigued whether women found him a good match BEFORE Alan Rickman played him?!

    David - an Austen personality test, what a good idea!

    Colin - I think that's definitely the hubris for an author. And your blog must have seeped into my unconscious... have you got a link or date for the relevant entry?

  19. Ooh so true... Wuthering Heights is my favourite book ever but I intensely dislike all the characters in it!

  20. I didn't like Marianne, but I didn't like Sense and Sensibility either, so I think I need a reread, since I read it before I knew the best way to go about reading Jane Austen. I like reading about Fanny a great deal, but I expect I would rather hate her if I met her. I love all the rest, though.

    Louise in Someone at a Distance is a good example of this, I think. You have to hate her for what she does, but so much of the story is from her point of view and that in no way detracts from liking the book.

  21. Your sketch has made me laugh, but I'm appalled, appalled I tell you, at the idea of not loving Anne Elliot! :)

    I suppose my strongest example of not like the characters but loving the book has to be Wuthering Heights. Rotten lot, but incredible book.


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