I Really Don’t Know What I Think About Unlikeable Protagonists

Discussion

Unlikeable, prickly protagonists seem to be a popular topic, especially with books like Gone Girl writing about women who are actually unlikeable, something that we unfortunately don’t see much of in literature. I’ve mostly stayed out of the conversation, though, because I honestly don’t know what I think about unlikeable protagonists.

You see, I’m the type of person who needs to feel some sort of connection with a protagonist to really enjoy a story. Maybe that means I simply sympathize for them, maybe I feel a personal connection with them – it all really depends. However, this means I often don’t connect with unlikeable characters, which means I also tend to like them less. I feel bad, like I’m a shallow reader, but it’s difficult to change the way I think that drastically.

DramaramaThis subject first came up when I read E. Lockhart’s Dramarama one or two months ago. At the beginning of the book, I didn’t really like the main character at all. Sadye seemed too judgmental for me to connect with her – or perhaps the problem was that I connected with her too much. You see, one of the reasons that I complain so much about judgmental characters is because I can bee way too judgmental, and I hate it when characters remind me of traits I dislike in myself. So, I guess the problem isn’t always that I can’t connect with protagonists, but that I don’t always connect in a positive way.

Dramarama improved for me when I began to connect with Sadye. She didn’t necessarily become a better person, but she began to acknowledge her personality problems, and that made me feel a lot better about her character.

TheStartofMeAndYouThen this topic came to mind again today, while I’m reading Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You. Last year, I read and mostly disliked Open Road Summer, mainly because I hated how judgmental and girl-hating the main character was. All the excessive girl hate made it difficult for me to like the book, and that fact made me really worried about reading her second book, despite all the love for it. As soon as I began it, though, it was immediately clear that it was different, and I think a big reason was because I liked the main character more.

The judgmental thing was definitely better, but Paige, the protagonist, can still be a little judgmental, looking at people on a shallow level. For some reason, it didn’t matter as much. If we took away the judgmental trait from Paige and Reagan from Open Road Summer, I think I would still like Paige way more. I think I just connected with her more – her anxiety problems, her love of reading, TV, and writing (TV screenplays instead of books, but I’ve always been at least a little interested in screenplay writing as well), and her relative skill at trivia and such. I just didn’t connect with the positive parts of Reagan’s personality, so I had a lot of trouble forgiving the negative traits as a result.

And I think that’s where the problem lies – I need something good before I can forgive the bad. There has to be something about a character that I really like, that I can connect to – then everything else goes by the wayside. Looking back at the Gone Girl example I used at the beginning – I never really liked Amy as a person, but I found her an interesting character. All of her different personalities and the lengths she went to in order to get what she wanted – it made for an interesting character, and I guess on some level I connected with that, which is why I might be able to like her on some level.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be the kind of person who always loves difficult characters, but I’m glad to see that I might be able to connect with them on various levels. Does anyone else have this problem, or am I just a difficult, finicky reader?

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5 thoughts on “I Really Don’t Know What I Think About Unlikeable Protagonists

  1. There was a tweet I saw from Victoria Schwab the other day, and it said “There is no such thing as likable and unlikable characters, only relatability of a character.” Or something along those lines. I think that there is nothing wrong with characters that are ‘unlikable’ because we do tend to complain about how protagonists are all so perfect. After all, don’t we all have some unlikable traits within all of us? I really like the idea of ‘unlikable’ characters especially sometimes as main protagonists because there are some instances in which I can relate to them in a way where I think: “Oh yeah I can totally relate, I’ve felt like that sometimes.”
    Great post!

    1. We definitely need protagonists that aren’t perfect and boring! And that sounds like a great quote – there are “likeable” characters that I certainly can’t relate to and unlikeable characters that I love because I relate to them!

  2. Hi! I found your blog post link on Oh, The Books! weekly roundup, and I love this topic.

    I certainly don’t like cookie-cutter protagonists, and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, either, but I definitely do need to connect with the main character on SOME level. I didn’t even manage to finish Open Road Summer because of how much I hated the main character, but I read and loved The Start of Me and You. If everything about a character is unpleasant, it’s not enjoyable to read about her/him. It may be “shallow,” as you said, but hey, we read for fun, and we aren’t required to read books that we don’t enjoy.

    1. Yeah, it’s not fair to force ourselves through books that I simply don’t enjoy. I don’t have to like a protagonist, but it certainly helps a lot, and I definitely have to have some kind of connection with them.

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