Characters I care about

I’ve mentioned before (multiple times, I’m sure) that it’s hard for me to like a book if I don’t like the main character. After reading Codex by Lev Grossman and feeling disappointed at the end that the main character turns out to be such a jerk (I could think of other words to call him but they’re not words I normally use), I found myself asking if it was unreasonable for me to judge a book based on whether I like the main character.

Apparently I’m not the only one having such thoughts lately. The New York Times recently took on this question, with two writers trying to answer the question “Are we too concerned that characters be ‘likable’?

And that was only one of the online discussions of the topic. This essay argues that readers’ complaints about unlikable characters are unreasonable, that it does not make sense to hold fictional characters to “the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends.”

I suppose not. Yet people do want to read books where the main character has admirable qualities, while accepting that the character will also have some flaws – as we all do – but be making some kind of effort to overcome those flaws. Another essay points out that there is a difference between likable assholes and characters who are just plain unlikable.

I don’t know that I can think of a book I enjoyed where the main character was a “likeable asshole,” but I certainly would make a distinction between “likable” and “nice.” A number of comments I’ve read on this topic point out that “likable” characters are often bland and boring. Perhaps those are the characters where the author worked on making the character nice so as to be likable.

But likable is not the same as nice, either in fiction or real life. I can think of a number of people who initially struck me as somewhat unfriendly, yet as I continued to have contact with them (at places like work, school, or church, where you need to interact with people whether or not you like them), I came to know and like them.

I thought that Edward Wozny in Codex was going to be that sort of person. I didn’t like him at all at the beginning, but I was interested in the book-related project he was working on. He did some things I thought were stupid, but he seemed to be changing, presumably for the better.

But it turns out he really hasn’t changed. The one redeeming aspect of the disappointing ending was the I could tell myself, “He deserved it.”

I suppose I wouldn’t have minded as much if the story itself had been better. It sounded so promising – a “powerful literary thriller” with “mystifying parallels” between a computer game and the legend of a medieval codex. But the resolution of the mysteries – such as they are – aren’t all that satisfying.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t have cared as much how good the storyline was if I really liked the character. But I have to find enjoyment in one or the other to like the book as a whole.

I also recently read The World of Jeeves, a volume containing all of P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories featuring the Jeeves, the consummate butler. (I had heard of Jeeves and P. G. Wodehouse for years but never got around to reading any until now.) These stories are narrated by Bertie Wooster, who is clearly a fool in many ways. I don’t know that I’d like to know someone like Bertie in person, but I enjoy the stories.

In general, I am uncomfortable reading about people doing things that should make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. I don’t like seeing them get themselves in trouble. Bertie does such things constantly, yet after the first two or three stories it didn’t bother me much anymore.

Perhaps it was that Bertie seems to be such a caricature, more than a real person. Perhaps it is because the reader knows Jeeves will always get him out of trouble – and Jeeves becomes the character one can admire. Perhaps it is the same kind of distinction as made in one of the essays cited above, except that Bertie is a likable fool rather than a likable asshole – but still quite likable.

I’m not sure “likable” is even the issue so much as not “unlikable.” A good writer can get me inside the mind of the character long enough that I come to care about what happens to this person, even if it’s not some I would feel drawn to in real life. I’m not going to be put off by some unwise decisions, even some selfish or hurtful actions, as long as they don’t seem to be the norm for this character.

But there’s a limit to what kind of character I can – or want to – identify with. At some point a character becomes so unsavory that I just don’t want to be inside the person’s head. It just makes me feel sort of unclean to be looking out on the world through that person’s eyes, even in my imagination. I don’t want to exercise the suspension of disbelief required for the enjoyment of fiction. I want to keep reminding myself that this person doesn’t actually exist.

So I will probably go on liking books more when I like the characters – as well as enjoying them much more when they’re also well-written. It’s not that I won’t read books with characters I don’t care for; once I start a book I rarely fail to finish it (at least with fiction).

And if some people think that makes me a lesser sort of reader for feeling that way, too bad.

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