Hate the Player, Not the Game

I think, as humans, our need to shy away from things we don't "like" is a result of both nature and nurture. We don't like the feel of a 500 degree broiler pan on our forearm, so we move away (and yell enough expletives to make a sailor blush). We don't like feeling embarrassed, so we stay away from thing we're bad at (like dancing or mini golf). Often, people feel the same way about the main characters in novels- if they don't like he or she, they're more inclined to have adverse feelings about the book as a whole.

Case and point- Solar by Ian McEwan. I have to preface this by saying that this novel definitely wasn't his best, but it definitely had things to appreciate. After reading many of the reviews on Amazon, I noticed that a common complaint was that the protagonist wasn't likable. Yup, he was a chauvinistic, lazy, abrasive opportunist, but he was also a fascinating character in a novel that uniquely combined environmentalism and fiction. Who cares if he wasn't warm and fuzzy?

Another character that I didn't love was Marina Singh in Ann Patchett's newest novel State of Wonder. I can't pinpoint where exactly my dislike stems, but something about her just didn't resonate. Patchett's crafting of her character wasn't to blame, though; she was interesting, intelligent and independent (the three Is all women should be). And while I had a few issues, I enjoyed the story and would strongly recommend it; I just didn't fall in love with Marina.

There are plenty of great novels with less than likable characters; A Confederacy of Dunces, Crime and Punishment, In Cold Blood, and Super Sad True Love Story, to name a few. What makes these novels great is the writing, both as far as plot and prose. And there's a difference between not liking a character because they're assholes/whiners/murderers and not liking them because they're flat, poorly developed or just plain "off." Talented writers can immerse unlikable characters in good books, while mediocre writers simply lack the skill to develop their characters or the rest of the their novels.

I think it's important to note that often authors make characters unlikable on purpose. Why do we hate them so much? How does it change our perspective on the rest of the novel? What does it make us realize about ourselves?

As much as I don't watch many movies, I suppose they're relevant examples. Take Star Wars. Love the movies, but hate Luke Skywalker for being such a whiny little bitch ("waaaa, my aunt and uncle are dead," "waaaaa my dad wants kill me," "waaaaa the girl I want to bone is my sister"). Dirty Dancing is another example; not particularly fond of Baby (speaking of whiners...), but like the movie as a whole. You get the gist. I hate whiners, but sometimes I like the movies they're in.

If/when I ever write a book I'm fairly confident that the main character will be somewhat unlikable, as there will probably some of myself ingrained into her (honesty is the best policy). I think it can be fun to dislike characters; my students are currently having a fabulous time hating Mildred in Fahrenheit 451, but as long as they can explain why I encourage the hating. Sometimes complaining and hating can be cathartic- and so much less painful or dramatic when it's a fictional character.

So next time you're reading something and you start hating on the main character, remember that it may be intentional and that you need to look at the bigger picture. We're not always there to cheerlead for the home team, but to serve instead as an objective observer who can scout out both sides.

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