Monday, March 31, 2014

Thoughts On: "Liking" Characters

I like talking about books; I think it’s great that people can have different opinions on the same book.  However, there is one particular opinion that people seem to be very fond of expressing, and I really wish they wouldn’t.  It’s “I don’t like this book because I don’t like the main character.”

Now, characters have always been a huge part in my enjoyment of books; I find that I can forgive a lot in a book if the characters are interesting, realistic, and well written. However, sometimes when people say that they don’t like a character, they don’t mean that they don’t like how poorly written they are, but rather that they don’t like that character’s personality or agree with their choices.  In other words, if they met this character in real life, they wouldn’t be their friend.

The first issue I take with people who don’t like books because they don’t like the characters is that just because you don’t like a character’s personality doesn’t mean that the character can’t be realistic or interesting, or that their stories are not worth telling.  Take Sherlock Holmes, for example.  If you think about it, you probably wouldn’t want him as your friend, even if you disregard the cocaine; he’s obnoxious, a bit self-centred, and has no problem pointing out that he’s smarter than everyone else.  A lot of adaptations tend to avoid presenting these characteristics to make him more likable, but that’s a rant for another day. However, the fact that Sherlock isn’t particularly nice doesn’t mean that he’s not an interesting, well-rounded character, or that it’s not exciting to read about his detective-work.

A common complaint about characters is that they annoying whiners. Holden Caulfield, Sylvia Plath; they’re all just whingers who should stop being so miserable and self-absorbed. Because of this, their stories somehow become worse, or less valuable. However, it’s important to bear in mind that sometimes they are underlying issues that justify their complaints (abuse, clinical depression, etc.).  Even if a character is just being an angst-y teenager, I think if we’re all honest with ourselves we’ll admit that some people are like that in real life.  So, if it’s handled correctly, there’s no reason why there can’t be a place for moaning, and it doesn’t automatically make a book bad.

What if it’s not just a personality issue? What if the characters are morally despicable?  Well, I think then it largely comes down to an issue of framing; if the author seems to be presenting whatever horrible things the main characters are doing in a positive light, then yes, that can ruin a book.  However, a lot of books with immoral characters tend to make it clear that we’re not supposed to like those characters, or at the very least that we’re not supposed to agree with their choices.  Wuthering Heights springs to mind.

So please, dislike books because the characters are badly written, or unrealistic, or justify horrible ideas, but not because you wouldn’t be best friends.