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Book Chat > Debate: Can You Enjoy a Book If You Hate The Characters?

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message 1: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) This popped up a number of times both personally and in online discussion of a few books, recently and strongly in our discussion of The Corrections. The question for debate is:

Can you enjoy a book if you personally dislike/disagree with/are disgusted by it's characters, possibly all of them?

Refinement #1: Many people will instinctively answer YES to the question, then when pressed for reasons why they didn't like the book, admit they just hated the people in it, be sure you're not doing the same.

Refinement #2: there is no CORRECT answer, the point here is to discover how WE (meaning you) react, and to discover contrasting views....AND to debate/fight/argue about them if desired. So while there is no "correct view", feel free to challenge or debate it.



message 2: by Jason (new)

Jason Baldwin-Stephens | 131 comments Hmmmm, that's a tough question.

I can enjoy a book in which I don't like any of the characters but I don't think I could love a book in which I didn't like any of the characters.

Naturally I'm drawing a complete blank here in trying to think of an example to illustrate my answer.


message 3: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments If you say "can you," meaning the editorial you, the answer is yes. Look at Flannery O'Connor. Her work is brilliant and beloved.

If you say "can you," using a more direct and personal you, enjoy this type of book, the answer is very very rarely. There will have to be something else about such a book that I can invest in. Maybe the prose. Maybe the narration. If you, as a writer distance your reader, you have to give them some bridge back to the story I think.


message 4: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) That's an interesting point, Deborah. Does the author always/usually know they're making the characters unlovable? Sometimes I wonder that because the amazingly long time it takes to write something (compared with how long it takes to read it) that perhaps they lose sight of the impression the character makes upon the reader. As the author struggles to flesh them out, and consider the causal relationship between event and behavior, I wonder if they lose track of what the snap first impressions we make of them truly are. Writing gives so much time for sideways thinking, it's so easy to forget how it looks 'frontways'.

So Deborah's point about the technique of offering a bridge back in is especially interesting to me. Human redemption on several levels, that of the character, and redemption of the prose by doing so, and a meta-level of the author themselves by succeeding if they do.

I tend to expect that even if all the characters are foul, there is one who we're expected as the reader to gravitate to, and often times if they are left unredeemed, it's slipped to us as the reader that we're to see our own reflection in them, to see how at least THAT character is a good person who has understandably lost their way.

For me personally, I don't feel the need to connect with the characters personally..ok, that's wrong...I DO, but I don't have to enjoy them as people. I just have to be at least mildly interested in what happens next. I might connect with them, but I don't feel the need to enjoy their company. The Forth Wall of drama keeps my hands clean of their literal or moral squalor. I'd love to hear more from Jason, Deborah, and others on this! Again, there's no "right", I'd just like to know what's right for you.


message 5: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Oh!
Ok, film not literature. The King. One of the things I loved about the King was that I thought it was an amazing trick that I was invested so heavily. Here was someone doing horrible things, and you couldn't overlook them or get around them. And yet, you held your breath and hoped for... I don't know what. But you hoped for a character that didn't deserve your hope. I thought that made it an absolutely brilliant piece of film making.

I don't know that you must love the characters, but you do need a reason to care about them. Or at least, I do.


message 6: by Jason (new)

Jason Baldwin-Stephens | 131 comments Thought of an example.

The novel The Lie by Chad Kultgen; it’s a satire piece and really you shouldn't like the characters. It's pretty clear that Kultgen knew the reader wouldn't like the characters though there is one that may deserve a smidge of sympathy but overall what kept me in the novel was Kultgen's technique. The guy can write and I've recommended the book to a number of people.

On the flip side if I'm reading something that is more genre specific and I don't like any of the characters? If they are generic it’s one thing (for genre fiction) but if the heroe/heroine is unlikable then there is no way I will finish the book let alone recommend it to someone no matter how good the writer's prose is.

From my own experience (or lack of depending on how you see it) I can say that I don't take a readers first impression of my characters into consideration when I'm working on a first draft of something. In those cases I'm just meeting the characters for the first time myself and learning who they are as I go. In the following drafts I will, and have had to, make changes along the way due to first impressions of a character but only if I feel it strengthens the work.


message 7: by Silver (new)

Silver I think for me it really depends on a few different factors. For one I think it impart depends upon if the dislikeablitly was by design or not. For it is true, that if I am reading a book in which I feel as if the author intends for the reader to like the main characters but I find I do not, I will often not enjoy the book itself as much. But if I feel that the disagreeableness of the characters is by authors intent, than I think I will still find the book itself to be enjoyable.

It also depends upon what else the book has to offer. If it has a really strong plot and is well written, and interesting, than my enjoying of the book will not depend so strongly upon how much I like the characters.

And it depends upon how interesting the characters really are, and if I just flat out don't like them at all, don't care about them, have no interest in them. Or if in spite of the fact that I may find myself strongly disagreeing with them in many instances and find them to be generally dislikable, and yet at the same time still find them to be fascinating characters, and are they the type that I just flat out hate, or the type that I love to hate so to speak.

So far me, I do not think that my enjoyment of a book is completely dependent on my liking the characters, but it really does depended on the circumstances of each individual book how much of a factor likeability of the characters will be for me.


message 8: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Jason wrote: "From my own experience (or lack of depending on how you see it) I can say that I don't take a readers first impression of my characters into consideration when I'm working on a first draft of something. In those cases I'm just meeting the characters for the first time myself and learning who they are as I go. In the following drafts I will, and have had to, make changes along the way due to first impressions of a character but only if I feel it strengthens the work."

If everyone will forgive a digression into a conversation about writing, I don't think the trick is to think about what the reader will think of the character(s) but that the writer have some affection, warmth or sympathy for them.

The likability of characters I think has less to do with how good, moral or true they are than how the writer treats them.


message 9: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) True, but my point was that during the endless sideways planning and editing and other acts of creation, it's very easy to lose the impression the book makes. This is why so many writers feel like the readers missed the point. They're right, but they missed it because of the different relationship with the text. Write it, then go back and READ it. Then consider changes.


message 10: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments I can agree with that.


message 11: by Jason (new)

Jason Baldwin-Stephens | 131 comments Deborah wrote: "I can agree with that."

Ditto.


message 12: by Mikela (new)

Mikela I'm not sure that one can't love a book yet loath the characters. Witness The Secret History in which Donna Tartt gave us the most unsympathic characters with more flaws than I can recount. I'm hard pressed to find anything likeable about any of the main characters, with their incest, drugs, alcohol abuse, murder and betrayal of each other. At the same time the book really worked. This could be because each of us could relate to the pressures college life imposes on one at a period in our lives where we are all searching for our identities or, as Silver pointed out, Tartt didn't intend us to really like these characters and wove the story to highlight this dislike.


message 13: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I think Donna Tartt intended for us to like, or at least empathize with the main character. I cared what happened to him. I think it might be an overstatement to say I "like" Eli in the Sisters Brothers, but I worry about him and I care what happens to him. There are times when I care about the characters in the Corrections, even though I don't much like them. (I definitely felt sympathy for Chip as a boy when he was stuck at the dining room table because he wouldn't eat something disgusting.) I agree with Silver's message 7 above.


message 14: by John (new)

John (johnnyfartpants) I think that the quality of the writing is far more important than having any affinity with the characters. After all, that's the main reason for picking up a book in the first place; initially, we know nothing about any of the characters that lie within. As an example, take just about any book by Martin Amis Money by Martin Amis and you will find within a collection of characters that have few if any redeemimg qualitiies, but the writing impels you to continue reading. WIll Self's racist, demented London cabbie is another character with which it is difficult to sympathasise The Book of Dave A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future by Will Self , but again it is the quality of the writing that sustains your interest.


message 15: by Deborah (last edited Jun 11, 2012 02:55AM) (new)

Deborah | 983 comments I loved The Book of Dave.

And yet I dislike Hemingway and O'Connor because I can't forgive them for their characters, whom they don't seem to like and I can't seem to like either.

I don't think that the problem with Hemingway or O'Connor is the quality of their writing.

So, I think that the argument that quality of writing will compensate completely for characters you can't care about fails in my case. Usually at least.


message 16: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Will wrote: "For me personally, I don't feel the need to connect with the characters personally..ok, that's wrong...I DO, but I don't have to enjoy them as people. I just have to be at least mildly interested in what happens next. I might connect with them, but I don't feel the need to enjoy their company. "

I agree. What I can't abide is characters who don't feel real.


message 17: by Jason (new)

Jason Baldwin-Stephens | 131 comments Hemingway is a great example, Deborah.

I've always seen his characters as more extremely flawed than unlikable however, I was never much of a Hemingway fan until I studied him for a semester. I wonder how much that has influenced how I see his characters?


message 18: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Jason, my most memorable experience with Hemingway was Hills Like White Elephants. It's very possible that this not the piece to judge him by. It's a wonderful example of sparse writing, which I love.

But ugh. Just ugh. My favorite character is the waiter. I want to go to Hemingway's grave and yell, "I don't care!" He embraced a concept and a mood and rendered it beautifully, but his characters were incidental at best and repugnant at worst, and the quality of the writing failed utterly to overcome that obstacle. (For me.)


message 19: by Jason (new)

Jason Baldwin-Stephens | 131 comments Deborah wrote: "Jason, my most memorable experience with Hemingway was Hills Like White Elephants. It's very possible that this not the piece to judge him by. It's a wonderful example of sparse writing, which I lo..."

: )

Been thinking this over for the last few hours and I think it's impossible for me to read something from Hemingway and to only judge it based on character and plot because of that class I took.

I suppose that means I need to alter my initial answer to the question that Will posed with this thread in that, I guess it is possible for me to love a novel/short story even if I don't like the characters.


message 20: by John (last edited Jun 12, 2012 12:52AM) (new)

John (johnnyfartpants) [TONGUE_IN_CHEEK_MODE]
How about: Can You Enjoy a Book If You Hate The Author?

I know I could never read a book by Jeffrey Archer no matter how good it may be (unlikely). Mein Kampf? Any of the thousands of book reputedly written by Kim Jong Il? 'Celebrity' biographies?

[TONGUE_IN_CHEEK_MODE]


message 21: by James E. (new)

James E. Martin | 76 comments sure, think of Norman Mailer, C.S. Lewis, Robert Frost, for example..


message 22: by Zadignose (last edited Jun 21, 2012 02:45AM) (new)

Zadignose | 87 comments I find the question strange. I'm also not sure what it means to like or to dislike a character. I think most of the books I like have unsavory, even contemptible characters. I just finished reading A House For Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul, I loved the book, and neither the main character nor any other person in the book is a good person whom we have any reason to like. It's a never ending display of pathos. I sympathize, sometimes, with characters, though they are thoroughly contemptible.

One of my favorite authors, by the way, is Celine. How likable is anyone in one of his books?

Who do we love in Gogol's Lost Souls, or virtually any Gogol writing. For me, the person I love is the AUTHOR! Do you identify much with the characters of Dostoevsky? I identify with them only in a shameful way.


message 23: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) I share your love of Gogol. The Carriage is a brilliant little story. If you're looking for good stories from living writers, by the way, consider Lydia Davis (also the finest translator of Proust, period) or Maureen McHugh.


message 24: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) But the question stems from one of the most common complaints we encounter from members during a read, which is not enjoying a book or having difficulty finishing it because of the readers dislike of the characters. I share your thoughts, but it's such a common issue, and people approach it in such different ways, it's an interesting topic.


message 25: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
It is an interesting topic. I've had this discussion with my husband off and on for years. He reads a lot of science fiction. I read some, but he has learned not to recommend a science fiction book without likeable characters, because he knows I won't like it. But I love Proust's "Swann in Love," and he doesn't like it because he dislikes Swann. I can enjoy reading Proust when I don't like the characters, because I recognize many of their dislikeable emotions as real world feelings, sometimes feelings I have had and not been particularly proud of. I read different books for different reasons. If it is escapist fiction I'm reading just for entertainment or distraction, then I have to like at least the main character. Liking characters is less important when the book has other qualities, like characters who feel "true," or wonderful prose or a wonderful plot, or when the author is just really good at telling a story. I had trouble getting through early parts of "The Corrections" because I disliked Chip and Gary so thoroughly. By the end of the book, when I knew more about them, I was much more interested. I really enjoyed the last 100-150 pages of the book. I think what changed for me is that I started seeing aspects of the characters I could relate to, even if I didn't necessarily "like" those characters.


message 26: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Zadignose wrote: "I find the question strange. I'm also not sure what it means to like or to dislike a character...."

I resonate with Z's statement above. Although "liking" a character may add to the appeal or enjoyment of a book, I tend to read for ideas (about the world in which we live), rather than either character or plot or language. That said, I am sometimes absolutely astounded by the lack of empathy many readers seem willing to extend to a character. Empathy doesn't mean having to approve or condone a character, but it does usually imply some ability to stand outside one's own skin and (attempt to) see the world from another perspective. (And "empathy" is very different than "sympathy", at least as I have been trained to use those words.) More than perhaps anything else, those other world views are what literature offers -- at least more views than I have time to acquire in any other single way than by reading.


message 27: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) It's odd, I agree, but it's one of the most common complaints we've seen in the discussions, that someone is unable or unwilling to enjoy a book because they dislike one or all characters in it. I will say that there are times where I will take a special shine to a character, where something revealed about them resonates with something in myself, or believe, or wish I had within me.


message 28: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Will wrote: "...it's one of the most common complaints we've seen in the discussions, that someone is unable or unwilling to enjoy a book because they dislike one or all characters in it...."

And that I find a troubling aspect of our identity as humans, indeed, one with which I struggle to attain empathy! LOL!

Is it legitimate to consider such symptomatic of our divided body politic in the U.S.? Or is that taking an analogy too far?


message 29: by James E. (new)

James E. Martin | 76 comments I recently read Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan. Main character is pretty horrible, but really liked the book. Sure it's possible ; often happens to me.


message 30: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) well, I'm not sure about the U.S. Congress (who is) but as a former minor insider, I can say that at the beginning, grass roots level, we encourage total abandonment to the political extreme. By the time somebody can come out of their local township org (which can be as small as 100-3000 people at times you're seeing only the ideologically pure, from deep within the cloistered order of the party. So by the time you hear of them, you wonder why everybody is so...well, un-moderate. That's why. Multiply this by several thousands of townships and counties in this country, and you've pre-selected all the reasonable people (and most of the actually intelligent ones) out of the system. When you DO have somebody smart, you've really just selected for a budding sociopath, able to con the purists at the grass roots level they're one of the chosen. Not a tremendous improvement in many opinions. So I personally view the issue as one caused by the very fabric of our system, and don't blame any one set of people or party. It's the (IMO) inevitable endpoint of a two-party representative democracy. Without switching to a parliamentary system, we could probably roll it back for a while, but we'd end up here again without systemic change at the most local of levels, long before you hear or see these people.

Back to books, it's true also that people often have a very hard time being empathetic, either to a real person or a fictional one. Being so sometimes requires a deeper level of comfort with yourself and your own worldview than most people have achieved, plus a willingness to not allow yourself to be hardened to life's differences, to not allow yourself to become intellectually arrogant. But movies are exactly the opposite. We love seeing normal people in strange situations, and seeing how they change. Two of the more popular tv series on television these days (both on the same network) are essentially studies of normal people thrust into completely bizarre and uncontrollable circumstances, and the show is not just about what happens, but more about how THEY come out the other side as VERY different people (the two shows I mention are "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead", btw)


message 31: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Not survivor and the amazing race?


message 32: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) my solitary experience with the amazing race was watching a woman accidentally hit herself with a watermelon from a giant slingshot at point blank range. It looked devastating, and quite possibly inspired some personal growth. But swelling doesn't count as personal growth.


message 33: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments I had to wait till I stopped laughing to treat you to my theory on reality tv.

I think it should be mandatory for all students of story telling.

It has everything a story should have:
Heroes
Villains
Conflict
Arc
Resolution

Reality TV is a perfect medium!


message 34: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Despite my ridiculous cable bill just to get biased news reports, I watch so little TV as to be worthless in discussions about the content provided. But I enjoyed the exchange above!


message 35: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Will wrote: "Back to books, it's true also that people often have a very hard time being empathetic, either to a real person or a fictional one. Being so sometimes requires a deeper level of comfort with yourself and your own worldview than most people have achieved, plus a willingness to not allow yourself to be hardened to life's differences, to not allow yourself to become intellectually arrogant...."

That seems true oftentimes at a distance; fortunately, up-close, I often find the fear and arrogance softens.

Enjoyed your political observations, Will. Hadn't encountered that perspective so stated, but the participation and selection process rings true to experience. Not certain about the inevitability -- have to put that in the stew pot for awhile.


message 36: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments John wrote: "I think that the quality of the writing is far more important than having any affinity with the characters. After all, that's the main reason for picking up a book in the first place; initially, we know nothing about any of the characters that lie within. As an example, take just about any book by Martin Amis and you will find within a collection of characters that have few if any redeeming qualities, but the writing impels you to continue reading … it is the quality of the writing that sustains your interest."

'London Fields' by Martin Amis is a prime example!


message 37: by Kristen (new)

Kristen Personally, I find it difficult to enjoy a book if I don't like the characters. My main example is High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Now, I LOVE Nick Hornby's writing, and all of his other books I've read (Juliet, Naked, A Long Way Down, About a Boy, etc.)but I had such a problem with the main character of High Fidelity, that it was work to get through the whole book!

However, there are some exceptions. There are those books where you are meant to despise the characters. The one that is sticking out in my mind is The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. I think in this case the unreliable narrator and other characters make the story kind of a mystery to unfold, and I was always wondering if they would do something to redeem themselves. So I guess it depends on WHY the characters are unlikable. If it adds something to the story or makes things more complex, I really enjoy that. But in other cases, when a character is just a jerk, I can't get into it.


message 38: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Kristen wrote: "So I guess it depends on WHY the characters are unlikable. If it adds something to the story or makes things more complex, I really enjoy that"

I agree. But I've just thought of one notable exception. I was so intensely irritated by Madame Bovary I was hard put to finish the book!


message 39: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) lol, I spent every moment with Bovary angry. Although, I read a utterly fascinating book on the detailed process Flaubert took in writing it. I intend to re-read it, but in French. I suspect that will help.


message 40: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Sophia wrote that she was so irritated with Madame Bovary she was hard put to finish the book. I agree. I tried to read Madame Bovary many years ago, but I never finished it.


message 41: by Anumita (new)

Anumita | 2 comments I think it's possible to appreciate a book with deeply unlikeable characters, but maybe not enjoy it. I had a huge issue with A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul. I so thoroughly hated the protagonist and really didn't care for the supporting players, that I couldn't really enjoy it. Same thing with Great Expectations. I found myself loathing the characters to the point of really not being able to enjoy the book. (I know this is a controversial opinion about this particular book)

More importantly though, I don't think it's necessary to enjoy every book. The experience is reading it and being moved by it; whether it is to tears, joy, anger, irritation, is not relevant.


message 42: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Anumita wrote: "More importantly though, I don't think it's necessary to enjoy every book. The experience is reading it and being moved by it; whether it is to tears, joy, anger, irritation, is not relevant."

I'm inclined to agree with you, most of the time. I'm interested in whether or not a book is well written. (I didn't think 'Madame Bovary' was well written!)

The characters in The Butcher Boy – and indeed the book itself – were truly loathsome, but the account of Francie's vertiginous slide into delinquency, madness and much worse is masterfully achieved.


message 43: by Anumita (new)

Anumita | 2 comments Sophia wrote: "Anumita wrote: "More importantly though, I don't think it's necessary to enjoy every book. The experience is reading it and being moved by it; whether it is to tears, joy, anger, irritation, is not..."

Exactly, the quality of writing is what ultimately decides if a book was worthwhile or not for me.


message 44: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Life is short. There are lots of books. I think it's ok to choose to read books you enjoy.

(I didn't finish The Buthcher Boy. Masterful or no, I was done about half way through.)


message 45: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) You get bonus points for correctly using vertiginous in a sentence naturally.


message 46: by Lily (last edited Aug 14, 2012 09:15AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Sophia wrote: "(I didn't think 'Madame Bovary' was well written!) ..."

As a friend of mine, who is much better trained in literature than I, challenges me: what might I learn or look at when my opinion on a book is significantly different than the seeming consensus of generations of critics and readers. (He can be rather cynical about those who diss generally accepted classics -- what's the point? Can they defend their views? How do they do so?)


message 47: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Deborah wrote: "I think it's ok to choose to read books you enjoy...."

Of course. But, as Anumita says, it should also be ok to choose to read books one doesn't per se "enjoy."


message 48: by William (new)

William Mego (willmego) Or you could just say you understood the technique was more than adequate, but chained to the sinister service of a nauseatingly overwrought Frenchman.


message 49: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Titter!


message 50: by Savanna (new)

Savanna (savannasl) | 35 comments For me it really depends on the way the character seems to be presented.

For example, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground is a brilliant book that I really love, and it deliberately features a despicable protagonist. But this is used as a device, as he basically represents what the author deemed wrong with society at the time and the novella is essentially an allegory, so I don't view it as a weakness.

However, if the character seems meant to be sympathetic but just isn't, I find it negatively affects my opinion of the book because the author seems to be championing a douchebag. At the risk of giving a very unimaginative example, I think of Twilight, but a more literary example for me would be Ono from Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.

Of course you can never say for sure what the author intended with any character, but that's my sense of it.


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