Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Unlikable and Unrelatable Characters

A friend of mine recently said that she's been frustrated with much of YA lit lately because she's been struggling to relate to the protagonists.  That line really got me thinking about unrelatable and unlikable characters.

Here's some honesty for you: The number one factor that determines whether or not I like a book is if I like the book's protagonist.  If I can't relate to a story's protagonist, or if I really disagree with her choices, or if I just flat out don't like her character, it's hard for me to enjoy the rest of the story.

For example, I am one of very few people who didn't like The Scorpio Races.  I can appreciate much of that story (the atmospheric writing, the world building, etc.) but I didn't care for Puck.  I gave that book a low rating.  (Puck was not the sole reason why, but she didn't help.)

And, conversely, I gave The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (read before the birth of Bookmark Dragon, so no review to link to) a really high rating simply because I adored Flavia.  I wasn't totally sold on the plot, but I loved her character.

I don't think I'm alone in this line of thinking.  It's understandable.  If you view an entire story through the lens of one character, and you find you dislike that character, you probably won't want to listen to what they have to say.

This is pretty common among books.  It seems to me to be particularly common among YA books, simply because YA books almost always feature teenagers as protagonists.  And, lets be honest, teenagers are often dramatic and self-centered and can be difficult to be around for long periods of time.  So if a YA story's protagonist sounds anything like a real teenager then she'll probably be dramatic, she'll probably think first and foremost about herself, and she'll probably make mistakes along the way that you, in all your adultly wisdom, would never make.  (Since, you know, adults NEVER make mistakes.  Ha.)  But this world is filled with teenagers.  They are as funny and as genuine as they are annoying, and despite all their awkwardness they really are trying to figure out how to grow up.  Navigating a teen's world is tricky business.  High school would make anyone cranky.  They need all the help they can get.

So lately I've been trying to be more open-minded about books with less-likable and/or less-relatable characters.  I have a teenage sister who is one of the most lovely human beings on the planet.  She is neither unlikable nor unrelatable.  (I really lucked out in the sister department.)  But sometimes when I meet her friends I wonder if they've beamed here from another planet.  But whether they're related to me or not, they are a human being, and as such they deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.  (Yes, teenagers are people, too.)

I think one of the purposes of reading is that it can open your mind to how other people think.  How often do you get that experience?  How often do you get to glimpse inside the minds of people totally different from you - different backgrounds, different experiences, different goals, and so on - and show you their motives, desires, fears, and dreams?  Learning how other people tick is a powerful and valuable thing, and, in my opinion, a worthy pursuit.  If you understand the battles other people are secretly fighting, you're more likely to be kind to them.  If you know what challenges someone else has overcome, it's easier to respect them.  Reading books about unlikable and unrelatable characters (or about anyone at all, really) teaches compassion and empathy and understanding and forgiveness.  And goodness knows we could all do with a little more of that in the world.

So next time you're halfway through a book and find you have absolutely nothing in common with the book's protagonist, or that you just don't like him or her, think about giving that book a few more chapters.  It just might teach you something you didn't know.  And you might become better for it.


  1. I inspired a post! I win the internet!

    I totally agree with you about opening up our minds and seeing things through another’s eyes. That is one of the very best parts about reading. Heck – that’s one of the best parts about interacting with friends and living in our multicultural world. That’s a huge part of why I moved to Boston – there’s so much diversity of thought and background! So, absolutely no arguments with you on that point.

    You mentioned that being a teenager is rough, and they need all the help they can get. I agree. My issue with YA literature stems from seeing the “annoying teenager” stereotypes reinforced, rather than showing the unique, honest, confused and flawed human beings that teenagers really are. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong books lately, but it feels like I’ve been stuck watching a Disney Channel level of characters the last few YA books I’ve read. I really hope that any Young Adults reading those books don’t think that that is what they should be striving to become. (Ruby Red felt more honest, which is why I liked it better – maybe the teenage image is more real in Germany.)

    With that said, I’d love to have my recent feeling for YA literature turned around. If you have any recommendations for books that you think are good examples – I’m all ears. I’m already planning on re-reading The Fault in Our Stars.

    1. All hail the mighty Thur for inspiring this post. And with this comment you've already inspired another one! (List of YA books with more real sounding protagonists, instead of teenage caricatures.) Thanks! It sounds like there are two types of unlikable/unrelatable teen protagonists in YA: the protagonist who is unlikable/unrelatable because she is angry, struggling, confused, discouraged, whiny, arrogant, and/or selfish, and the protagonist who is unlikable/unrelatable because she is underdeveloped as a character. I wrote this post with the first type in mind, but it sounds like your reading experience lately has been closer to the second type. That is totally understandable. I can't stand characters that more closely resemble caricatures than human beings. If I were you, I might just take a break from YA if it's frustrating you. There is so much lovely literature outside YA. If you're looking for a YA book recommendation, though, might I suggest The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer? (You know, Cinder, Scarlet, Cress...) That one features great characters. I also really liked the character development in the Under the Never Sky series. And that one has a killer plot as well. I absolutely loved Troubled Water by Sharon Shinn. You should definitely read that. And I think you would really enjoy the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima. That one is a 4-book fantasy series with a wonderfully developed world and a huge cast of three-dimensional characters. Knowing your reading tastes, I really think you would like that one, in particular.

      I better stop writing now, or else I'll still be sitting here recommending books to you for the next decade. (Not that I wouldn't love to talk about books with you for the next decade, but the laundry calls...)


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