Rants & Reflections

On the likeability of protagonists

This post idea has been sitting in my drafts for over a year, and I’m finally writing it. Yay NaBloPoMo! This is probably an unpopular opinion to be expressing, but that’s also the reason why I want to express it. Since I started this blog, I’ve been reading way more book reviews than I ever did before. One thing that sticks out to me quite often while reading amateur book reviews on Goodreads or blogs is the idea of not liking a book because the main character was hard to like. This always confuses me.

Not only does it confuse me, but it kinda makes me trust the writer of the review a little less, especially if I’m deciding whether or not to read the book under review. I’m the type of person who is seldom put-off by “unlikeable” characters. To me, the “like-ability” of the main character is irrelevant when judging a book. What matters more is that the prose is well written, the plot well crafted, and the characters developed complexly (not like-ably). Part of the joy of the reading experience to me is trying to figure out why “unlikeable” characters are the way that they are. Take Quentin Coldwater for example, from Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. He’s a little bitch. He sucks. He is whiney and pretentious and doesn’t get over his whiney pretentiousness till book 3. This affected many people’s opinions of the series, but not mine. Instead of giving up on the series because the protagonist was “unlikeable,” I wanted to keep reading in order to figure out why Quentin is the way he is. Isn’t that more important?

One of my favorite books of all time has one of the most unlikeable protagonists of all time: Emma by Jane Austen. Emma is ridiculous. She is very insightful, yet a complete idiot at the same time; she messes with the people she cares about for her own pleasure and amusement; she causes catastrophic mix-ups…but I love her. She is absolutely delightful to read about because you hate her so much. What about Holden Caulfield? Everyone hates him. But that’s because he represents a little part of our past selves as teenagers that we all hate. Who are we supposed to like in The Great Gatsby? Daisy? Helpless. Gatsby? Hopeless. Nick? Coward. I love that book.

You get to know characters, even the unlikeable ones, by reading their stories. Yes, some characters are unlikeable because they have to be in order to drive the plot – the villains. But I’m not talking about them. It just bothers me when people dismiss a book because “they didn’t like the main character.” And sure, if your purpose for reading is to find protagonists you like and connect with, then dismiss those books. In fact, there will be a lot of books out there you shouldn’t read. But I think it makes us better readers and people if we are able to stick with books who have characters we might not like in order to learn more about their nature, and ultimately, human nature.

For those like-minded (or maybe those just curious), here are some links to lists of great books with unlikeable protagonists:

Flavorwire: Wonderful Books Featuring Unlikeable Protagonists

Huff Post Books: 11 Unlikable Classic Book Characters We Love To Hate



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