However, just because I need to love characters, does that mean I have to like the protagonist? Does the “likeability” of the main character determine how good a book is? Should MCs always be likeable?
Well… Yes. Kinda.
Basically, if I can’t relate to the MC, the story’s already over for me. If they whine too much or are passive the whole time, I already know that I won’t enjoy the story. How can I? Readers are supposed to root for the protagonist, but if they’re distinctly unpleasant, that’s kind of hard to do. The rest of the book then is just spent waiting for it to be over, because you can’t get invested in the protagonist’s quest, and that’s just boring. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly enjoy reading boring books.
But if the protagonist’s voice has me caught in the story within the first few pages? Typically, I know that it’s a book I’m going to love with a capital L. That’s not to say that Vera (from Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King) or Mara (from The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin), are perfect, by any means. But that’s not the point. However, it does lead me to my next point…
It’s okay if my read-lationship with the MC starts out a bit rocky.
I shouldn’t like any character all the time. Honestly, that just seems boring. For example, Going Bovine by Libba Bray is one of my all-time favorite books (I mean, it’s written by Libba Bray), and yet, for much of the beginning, I wasn’t Cameron’s number one fan. By the end, though, I had honestly grown to love him, thanks to this neat little writing trick called character growth. I think that it’s completely fine for a character to start out as “unlikable” as long as they grow towards the end. (And, of course, “likable” characters should have growth, too, just in different ways.) If Cam from The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder had started out as anything but pessimistic, there wouldn’t be a story. And yes, sometimes characters will revert back to their old ways, but that’s only an accurate depiction of human nature.
Because, yeah, people have flaws.
But even by the end of a novel, I don’t want a perfect character. If I wanted to read about bland “heroes” without any supposed faults, I’d read a history textbook in my downtime. What I want in a protagonist is a messy combination of good and bad traits. Sometimes I want to cheer for their kind heart, but get frustrated with their desperation, or cringe at their embarrassing moments. Perfection is boring. That’s why it’s not just fine, but necessary, for an MC to be flawed.
Angel, from Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman is a good example of a flawed protagonist. She spends the majority of book making mistakes, ones that could potentially hurt her best friend, the boy she loves, and others around her. She rarely thinks anything through, instead just diving into sensitive situations and expecting to come out fine. However, hidden among all of that are insecurities and dreams that are relatable, allowing me to connect with her, even if I didn’t always like her. I was able to understand her a little better, which I think is more important than wanting a character to be my best friend.
Reconsidering the definition
Unfortunately, a lot of readers go into a book using the everyday definition of likeable, which is, according to freedictionary.com, “easy to like, agreeable.” That doesn’t apply to reading, though, which is why there is a second definition made for literature:
Adj. likeable: evoking empathetic or sympathetic feelings
Did you notice how it doesn’t say “being really super mega awesome all the time?” Really great characters aren’t always easy to like (Katniss, Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix, etc.), but readers still care about them, still want them to succeed because of the good they see in them. Basically, they “evoke empathy.” Honestly, the best protagonists are the most realistic, and real people are a jumble of great and irritating/heartbreaking traits. It’s what keeps life, and literature, interesting.
So do protagonists have to be likeable? In the appropriate dictionary sense of the word, most definitely yes. They should be messy and imperfect and wonderful all at the same time because it’s that combination that makes the reader feel something. But just because they’re likeable, doesn’t mean you have to like them in order to appreciate the book.
To finish up, I leave you with this eloquent John Green quote: “Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification. Books are in the business of creating stories that make your brain go all like asdfghj;gfd.”
Sara is a YA Book Blogger over at The Page Sage. When she's not reading, you can usually find her singing along to showtunes or watching Doctor Who.