Judging a Book By Its Protagonist: Do you Judge?




Every story needs a bad guy, right? The badder the bad guy the more compelling the read. But what about the protagonist? What if she’s unlikeable? There are many readers who will say, heck no to that book. There are readers who will stop mid-book, or earlier, if they deem the protagonist unrelatable. I have seen well-written books receive 1 star accompanied by a review which simply says: “Hated the main character.”

Are books the only art form where character likability is so intrinsic to its overall likability? I’ve never heard someone say they hated a song because its protagonist was a jerk. Art isn’t valued less because the subject is unattractive. Even movies, which are often based on books, seem to judge their unlikeable leads with less disdain. So why the hostility and outrage (and threats of burning books) when the main character in literature is not warm and fuzzy?

Stephanie Daniel, author of Sweetbitter, in her interview with The Creative Independent, shares an exchange she had with one of her readers about her protagonist.

“Do you actually like Tess?” That was (the reader’s) question. I was like, “Oh fantastic.” My answer aside, it’s been interesting to see that readers think part of their job as a reader is to judge whether they “like” the characters. That that is somehow integral to their experience of the book.”

For some readers, whether they like the characters or not is integral to their experience. This goes back to what the reader’s objectives are. Some read for entertainment solely. Others want and need to relate to the main character.

Stephanie Daniel believes that “there is merit in reading about unlikable characters.” She says, “I want to have respect for whatever the author is trying to do or show us about the human condition.”

Certainly, there are some genres which allow for more wiggle room on the likable factor, thrillers being one of them. But, I have received more than a fair share of 1 star reviews from people who believe a book has little worth if the main character is not likable.  It is because of this review I recently received for The Memory Box, that made me ponder this topic:

This work is either one star or five, nothing in between. A robust piece brilliantly concocted by a writer who throws out the map and cuts pot holes in the road.
This is a tale told to confuse while conveniently simultaneously baffling the teller: a narrator who cannot be relied upon and who cannot rely upon the tale within. The work is full of falsehoods which are true.
Just as I was about to throw the thing off my balcony I realized something. As a reader, I had been fighting for control. That is why people read, no? Not here. I was inside a book, not a spa. I was dragged through swampland by a sightless misdirected lost flibbertigibbet that knew exactly where it was headed. Seriously, this is a frightening look inside the mind of the protagonist. Rarely is this type mind examined so thoroughly.

“I was inside a book, not a spa” Thank you, Powell, whoever you are. I never thought about it that way, but I will from now on. Most characters are not black and white. Personally, I love deeply flawed good guys and bad guys who elicit empathy. Other people like it when characters are strictly one or the other. Of course, I support anyone’s criteria for the books they choose to read. It’s a very personal decision, and it should be. I just don’t believe a book is bad because its characters may be.

What do you think? Do you need to relate to the characters in order to enjoy the read? Do you judge a book on the likability of its characters? Why is literature judged more harshly than other art forms for its flawed characters?

No Comments

    • Peggy Natiello

    • 7 years ago

    I love this!! What a response! Peggy *Please note that my email address has changed to:



    1. Thanks, Peggy!

  1. I don’t think I judge, but maybe I do. I don’t expect everyone to be warm and fuzzy. Hey, I am far from warm and fuzzy myself. I know my inner thoughts and some of them are not nice so why shouldn’t some protagonists be the same way?

    By the way, Powell’s review is positive if read as I read it, but then I know the twisted mind of the protagonist In The Memory Box and it seems about perfect.

    1. Hi Nan, you really made me laugh out loud! But brought up a very good point. We have more than 1 side and so should literary characters, if they’re to have any depth, right? Thanks for bringing that up. I did enjoy Powell’s review. And I very much appreciated his change of direction in his reaction to the story/character. Very cool.

  2. Reblogged this on Jane Wilson.

    1. Thanks, Jane!

  3. Great topic! I don’t think I judge the characters. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to find them interesting, or their plight interesting, or the language used to describe them interesting. I enjoy getting into the head of someone that I wouldn’t necessarily “like” but lets me see the world through a different, interesting, perspective. On the other hand I can get annoyed enough to stop reading altogether by characters that I probably would like in person but who do predictable things or are “too nice,” sentimental, or naive.

    1. That’s really interesting, Deborah! I never thought about abandoning a book because of a character who is “too nice.” But yes, I get it. I feel the same way. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Interesting thoughts. My favourite “baddies” are Shakespeare’s Iago and Webster’s Bosola in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. They are so well written that thgeir backstory explains the evil actions – it doesn’t justify or defend them, but explains them. I confess I recently gave up on a book after nearly two hundred pages because I so intensely dislike the characters. It’s a new novel set in English Victorian times, and I just couldn’t bear any more sarcastic remarks, superficiality and artificial politeness. Another novel I recently read, published last year, is Megan Bradbury’s ‘Everyone is Watching’, set in New York, and narrated from several points of view. I didn’t find the characters (based on real-life people) particularly likable but the book was gripping, well written, with economy and laser precision. I can recommend it.

    1. It’s hard for me to stick with a book filled with unlikeables. Life’s too short and there are far too many books to get to! I will look up Everyone is Watching. Yes, if the book has unappealing characters, the writing better be GOOD! Thanks, Katia!

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