January 17, 2011

Dislikeable Characters: When Do You Call It Quits?

Characters and their relatability are very critical for me as a reader. I appreciate a blend of admirable qualities and flaws, and I enjoy seeing the character grow and learn from their mistakes. Nothing is worse than a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) that is as perfect at the beginning as they are at the end.

However, I was wondering...are there any qualities in a character that make it impossible for you to root for them? Have you come across any characters so reprehensible that you've put the book down in dismay before you've reached the end? Admittedly, it takes time to show that the character has genuinely changed, yes...but is there ever a point at which you give up on them entirely?

There are a couple books that I've enjoyed where the protagonist starts out as dislikeable. One is a very popular 2010 debut, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (my review here), where the main character Sam Kingston is lacking in self-awareness and compassion at the beginning. The point of the whole book is to show how she gradually changes as she is forced to repeat the same day over and over and evaluate her actions and their consequences. As readers we can see her realizing her faults and trying to become a better person...and she does, but it takes a while. Yet Oliver manages to take Sam from a character I would not have hung out with to one I might have been friends with, and that's quite an accomplishment.

Another is The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty. Bindy is a Type A overachiever who believes she's a cut above the rest of the school, but throughout the novel she discovers that she may have been viewing herself and others through a very distorted lens. She is the kind of protagonist you want to shake really hard at the beginning, but I actually ended up feeling a bit sorry for her partway through, and it is gratifying to see her loosen up a little and make some friends.

Both of these books I definitely read to the end, and I enjoyed seeing the character's journey. Yes, they were frustrating at the beginning, but I think the authors both managed to plant the seed of possibility for change in the protagonist...and that is essential. I have to see some tiny speck of goodness in their personality (or on the flip side, sympathy-inducing aspect of their situation) that leads me to have hope that they will become more likeable.

Because frankly, I don't like to read about totally despicable people. I know some readers like Wuthering Heights, but though I'm pretty sure I read to the bitter end, the characters turned me off. What's there to enjoy about characters that start out as selfish, twisted and vengeful...and never learn? Catherine and Heathcliff spend the whole novel tormenting each other! Also, I like to see some growth within a certain number of pages...it doesn't have to be major, but it has to be something. For instance, I disliked Crime and Punishment partly because Raskolnikov takes so long to change; after committing a crime he spends about 400 pages hemming and hawing before he "sees the light" and makes an important decision. I'm sorry, but I would have probably given up about 200 pages in — if not sooner — if I hadn't been assigned it in school.

Couldn't resist posting this cover! This must be his 'revelation' scene...a pity you have to slog through 400 pages to get there.

I've found myself having a similar reaction to the Luxe series by Anna Godbersen. Gorgeous covers and setting, of course, and a few of the characters are decent, but most of them are extremely egotistical, self-serving liars and they have stayed that way through the 3 books I have read! I *want* to have some characters to root for, but they're not giving me much to work with...or much potential for future growth.

So, what about the rest of you? Do you guys prefer to read about characters that are considerably flawed, but make a large improvement by the end? Or ones that are mostly likeable but still screw up now and then? How important is the development of the character vs. their qualities? And do you ever like to read books about characters that are completely unlikeable and don't change?


  1. What a great post! I don't think i've ever really permanitly put a book down because of the characters. I have this weird personality aspect were i can't help always giving things a chance and trying to see the best in even the worst people (characters) It gets a little annoying sometimes -.- but i guess that's just how i am.

    I put Before i Fall down after a chapter, but i picked it up again a week later and read through the whole thing. And loved it.

    I sometimes wish i could just stop reading about some despicable characters but i guess i don't have it in me, and i'll always keep hoping they learn.


  2. I think both are really important. But I think overall character development is tops. As long as a character keeps growing in different qualities then I'm hooked because often I can learn something from them. I always try to learn somethig from the books I read. :)

  3. I have a bad habit of being stubborn and not liking a flawed character even if they change and improve from the beginning. I'm reading the Wicked Lovely series now and two books in I hate the Summer King and don't really see that changing over the course of the next three books. He is so arrogant and manipulative.
    So, yes, I would say I prefer to read about characters that are mostly likeable (but not perfect). Unless the author is able to do an excellent job of changing our minds.

  4. Great post. There have been several books that I really disliked the main character, I continued reading to see if the character improved. If the character isn't likeable it is hard to really get into the story.

  5. I don't mind unlikeable characters, as long as they change... and the change is believable. I loved Before I Fall because the change in the main character was so well done. In contrast, Here Lies Bridget had a similar theme and a completely despicable MC... but I didn't buy the change at the end; it seemed contrived.

    I'm not big on Mary Stus, either. Bella Swan is an example of a character that I can't stand because she never developed or changed (and she was so boring and obnoxious that she really needed to)!

  6. I've definitely put down books because I hated characters. Case in point with The Luxe: I was about halfway through the first book when I realized that I hated all of the characters because they were such awful people and decided not to waste my time with them (gorgeous covers though!).
    Similarly I hated Wuthering Heights but I finished that because it's a classic. Heathcliff is the exact opposite of sexy; no idea what's wrong with people that they think he is!

  7. I rarely, if ever, completely give up on a book. I'm more likely to hate a book because the characters are boring, or dull, rather than unlikeable. Although, obnoxious mcs are the worst (Pollyanna types etc.).

    Normally, I finish the book and then complain about the characters. :)

  8. Great post...I wouldn't usually put down a book because of the characters. It's only happened once-I stopped reading Duff recently because Bianca and Wesley (main characters) really bothered me, though I've been told they redeem themself in the end. I haven't been able to pick it back up. If other parts of the book have grabbed me I can stick with it.

  9. Thanks for all of your thoughtful responses!

    @Khadija: I know what you mean, usually when I encounter a despicable character I am hoping pretty hard that they'll change!

    @Julia: Yes, I too really enjoy seeing the character grow right before my eyes :)

    @Aylee: I haven't read that series by Melissa Marr...but I will keep that in mind if I do. Thanks for the head's-up!

    @Cheree: Yes, for me there usually has to be some potential for change hinted at by the author if the character is really unlikeable right from the start.

    @La Coccinelle: I haven't read Here Lies Bridget but I've seen that reaction in more than one review, so I don't think I'll be picking it up anytime soon. Bella didn't bother me as much as she did some people, but I can see where you're coming from there :)

    @Bookworm1858: I'm glad I'm not the only one who found that to be the case with the Luxe! It's a pity since the covers *are* so beautiful :D And yes, I have no idea what they see in Heathcliff...how is his behaviour remotely romantic?

    @Ashley: Interesting point about dull or obnoxious characters being even more irritating than typically unlikeable ones. I know, Pollyanna can certainly get on your nerves!

    @Library Gal: Haven't read the Duff but I have heard really mixed things about it...seems like a kind of 'love it or hate it' book. Thanks for your thoughts on it :)

  10. I'd rather read about characters that are likeable and screw up occasionally because I find them easier to relate to. I'm also cynical so if the character development is too fast for flawed characters, I never completely believe that they've changed because they want to be better. One example is the character of Bridget from Here Lies Bridget. I was just waiting for her to die.

    I wasn't too much of a Luxe fan either because of the characters. I did like Diana though but was really disappointed about how the series ended.

  11. I'm usually pretty accepting of the characters since I figure we'll see some growth but there have been a few instances where instead of enjoying the books anymore, all I could do was rant about them.

    The two series off the top of my head where I have no intention of ever completing are The Luxe series which you mentioned and the House of Night series. As for the the Luxe series, I completely agree... those girls just got too whiny and were so self-centered and manipulative... plus I hated where some of the plot lines went. I got to the third book and didn't bother picking up the final fourth book after I accidently read a review which completely spoiled everything. The person didn't even bother to give a heads up but I'm grateful because it saved me $20 and reading it would have been a waste of my time.

    As for the HON series, I liked the first couple but the characters started to get on my nerves and the endless love triangles/rectangles were just not cool in my books. I made it up to finishing book 6 before finally having to put my foot down on the series. I just didn't want to force it anymore.

    If a character is going to drive me nuts, I'd at least like to see some sort of redeeming qualities but I didn't see it in them. Otherwise, I usually always finish a series if I like the characters... the only other reason I wouldn't would be having problems with the plot itself. :)

  12. I really need to connect to the characters I'm reading about. There's a certain type of main character that I love. She's basically good and her heart is in the right place, but she's usually a little, um, prone to doing things the wrong way at first. She's aware of her flaws and works to change them, which she usually accomplishes at least mostly by the end of the book. Think Meliara from Crown Duel.

    I can very occasionally stick with a book even if I hate the characters, but the rating will probably go down. Usually there will be something about the plot that is good enough for me to keep reading. Pretty Little Liars is an example of this. I hate all of them, but I want to find out what happens with the mystery.

    The Luxe, on the other hand, didn't offer an interesting enough plot, so I gave that one up after the first book. I agree with you, I couldn't stand any of those characters.

    I guess part of the reason I like Wuthering Heights is that I don't think the author was writing people she would actually like. I think you're supposed to look at them and think they're pretty outrageous. That's part of the genre.

    It does make a big difference to me what I think the author wants me to feel about the characters. An author can make a really horrible character, but if I know they're supposed to be horrible, then I'm more ok with it. If the character is terrible but the author seems to think their behavior is just fine, then I usually stop reading.

    I like to see the characters growing as the story progresses. I don't like it if I have to wade through 3/4 or more of the book with a terrible MC only to have them do a quick turn around in the final stretch. That just doesn't seem believable, plus I just don't want to be around an annoying character for so long.

    Sorry for writing so much! You always come up with the best discussion posts.

  13. I'm willing to give characters a chance when I'm starting a book but would like to see the growth and development as the story progresses. One series that comes to mind is the House of Night series. I liked the first two books but by book three it just went downhill for me. I saw the endless cycle of love triangles and the indecisiveness of the main character.

  14. Thats funny that Jenny mentioned the House of Night series because I was going to use it as an example of one that gets much better over time. But granted it takes about 5 books to get there :) I didn't like the first 3 very much either, mostly because of Zoey, the main character. I still like the side characters better than her! Anyway...

    This was a great post! I think it is sad that we are coming across a lot more dumb heroines in YA lately, like Luce from Fallen. (Don't even get me started). And when I read Twilight I wasn't really into analyzing books or characters yet so I never noticed about how irritating Bella is until someone pointed it out to me. I just finished The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Mary was not likable at all. I usualy push through to the end if I like the writing, the story, and the other characters though.

  15. Oh ~ I know what you mean about Bindy ~ but by the end I completely liked her :) Also, I could see with Sam where before i fall was going and it worked.

    However, I recently read another YA book and just didn;t like the character at all. and never did and i couldn't finish it. Even some charcters aren't unlikeable but just bland or cliche or something and I don;t finish the book :)

    great discussion post


  16. Fully agree with what you said about Wuthering Heights!

  17. I like my characters to be somewhat likeable, I get more enjoyment from books when I can relate to the main character. I don't mind them screwing up or having to go through a lot of development, I love character growth! But there are those characters that will never learn. The characters of The Magicians fit into this category, they just have no redeeming qualities and are really annoying.

    I had the same problem you did with Wuthering Heights, the people are just unlikeable. And The Luxe is one of the books that I got about halfway through with and then put down because I could not stand any of them. I almost never do this, because I'm always thinking: it will get better. And I have to know how it ends (which is why I did read the last couple of pages of the Luxe).

    Have you read The Age of Innocence? I thought the characters were annoying and the story wasn't that interesting. I finished it, hoping it would get better and because it's not that big. The MC was a bit of a sniffling idiot in my opinion..

    Anyway, great topic!

  18. @A Canadian Girl: Yes, I've heard that about Here Lies Bridget from a few people now. "I was just waiting for her to die." << LOL!! I think I'll be steering clear of this one.

    @Midnight Bloom: I know, the Luxe girls are very manipulative! I haven't read the 4th, not sure when/if I will, especially if the ending is disappointing (thanks for the head's-up!)

    I think I read the first couple of the HON series in the bookstore but I can't really remember much about them at all. I do think all the love triangles/rectangles could definitely start getting tiring after a little while!

    @Small Review: Wow, thanks for all of your thoughts! You raise some really good points. I think it does make a bit of a difference whether or not the author intends the characters to be unlikeable — characters you can't stand when the author didn't intend them to be that way are even worse!

    I agree, the plot can sometimes carry the book even if I'm not connecting that well with the characters (for some reason this seems to happen the most with mysteries for me).

    And thanks very much, I'm glad you're enjoying the discussion posts! I am too :)

    @Jenny N.: Oh yes, the indecisiveness of a character can really frustrate me...sometimes even more than the character making decisions I don't agree with.

    @Danielle: LOL, well it's good to have diverse opinions here! Great to hear another point of view on the HON series :) Yes, totally agree that the 'dumb' heroines are so annoying sometimes...haven't read Fallen but I have heard a lot about it that suggests I would not like it. I know exactly what you mean about Twilight - I wasn't into analyzing etc. when I first read it, but now I can definitely understand where a lot of the critics are coming from.

  19. @Nomes: I know, I liked Bindy much better by the end!

    @Lu: Thanks! Wuthering Heights seems to be a 'love it or hate it' type of book.

    @Daisy: LOL I knew you would agree with me about Wuthering Heights...I know, the characters that *never* learn do get irritating. Hmmmm, I haven't read the Age of Innocence and now I think maybe I won't pick it up... :D

  20. Interesting point about Age of Innocence-I just read it and I started out liking Archer but by the end, I kind of hated him. He was so annoying! However I liked what I saw of Ellen and May.

  21. @Bookworm1858: Hmmmm, interesting...sounds like it's the kind of book that gets different reactions depending on the reader!

  22. This is a fascinating question. Writers are often told their protagonists must be likeable. Well, maybe not. Some of the best novels I've read had characters who were so flawed as to be repulsive. Going Bovine, After, and Vibes are three I read last year. Part of the joy of reading those novels was participating in the protagonists' transformation. However, there must be some redeeming qualities to make this worthwhile, or at least a sympathetic rationale for their flaws. The choices they make should naturally arise from the flaws and lead to consequences which precipitate the character's growth. But if a character rubs me the wrong way for too long, especially if there is no attempt to resolve the personality issues, I move on.


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