Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does a story have to have likeable characters?

I'm nearing the end of Ian Rankin's, 'The Complaints'. I'll post my review early next week. Rankin, as per usual, has produced a solid, well plotted story that engages with a contemporary issue - in this case, the property crash in the wake of the financial crisis. And once again, there is a strong sense of place, with geography of Edinburgh shining through. That said, I found that I wasn't enjoying it as much as I thought I should. I'm a fan of Rankin's work and this seemed to have all the right ingredients. Then after a while it struck me - I either didn't like, or was ambivalent about, all the main characters. I had the same issue with John McFetridge's, 'Dirty Sweet'. A well written, well plotted story that featured morally ambiguous characters that I struggled to take a shine to (and I suspect I was never meant to; that was the point). It's an interesting approach, but as a reader it means there's no-one to identify with or to root for which, for me personally, leads to a slight alienation; a distancing or disconnection from the story.

Which brings me my question - does a story have to have at least one likeable character? A plucky hero, a lovable rogue, a flawed but moral maverick, etc. for it to work optimally? Or can all the characters be unlikeable and story still work just fine?


Deb said...

I had a similar experience recently when I read Danuta Reah's LISTEN TO THE SHADOWS. Both the heroine (soi-disant)and her neighbor were terribly distracted mothers, allowing whatever was tops in their minds to obliterate everything else--including the children they were supposed to be responsible for. The investigating detective (who ends up romancing the heroine) was very focused, but extremely cold. I did like the book, but that was in spite of, not because of, the likeability of the characters. I think you have to have at least one character you can relate to or find sympathetic or reading the book can be pretty tough going.

Kiwicraig said...

Thought-provoking post Rob. I had a similar experience last year with Gillian Flynn's DARK PLACES. Bleak, bleak, bleak novel - very well written, but I found none of the characters likeable. They were all 'broken' and very troubled.

I don't think it's a fatal flaw in a book, if the writing and storytelling is good enough, but for me I couldn't just read books with dislikeable characters (or a series centred on a completely dislikeable or ambivalence-inducing main character) - one every now and then is fine...