Thoughtful Thursday

[Thoughful Thursday] Can you enjoy an unlikable protagonist?

Thoughtful Thursday is a weekly meme from Reading is Fun Again.

Assuming that the protagonist is well written, do you need to like the protagonist to enjoy the book? Does the protagonist need to share similar values to you or be an extension of you in some way? Can the protagonist be completely different from you and you still enjoy the book?

This was a tough question to answer. My gut reaction is to say, no, of course the protagonist doesn’t have to be like me or even likable for me to enjoy a book. But on further introspection… that’s just not true.

First and foremost, it depends on what kind of protagonist we’re talking about: hero or villain. Am I supposed to be rooting for this person? If so, I need to actually be able to root for them in order to enjoy the story. And I can’t do that if the character is the epitome of everything I despise in humanity.

If I pick up a book and find that the supposed hero is an unapologetic bigot of any kind–racist, sexist, homophobic, etcetera–I won’t enjoy the book. This happened to me with Storm Front, the first Dresden Files book. I was so excited to read it, because I’d been promised that the series was amazing… and within the first few chapters, there’s a passage in which the main character, Harry Dresden, identifies himself as a proud misogynist.

At that point, I genuinely do not give a crap if the rest of the book is filled with Xenas and Buffys. I don’t care if the plot is so perfectly crafted and meticulously foreshadowed that it will literally blow my mind. I don’t even care if it’s the last book on earth. If your protagonist is a bigoted piece of shit and doesn’t get any direct and acknowledged as deserved comeuppance for it, I’m checked out. I will not enjoy the book. Period.

On the other hand, if I pick up a book and find that the protagonist is a villain–and acknowledged as such–go for it.  Spew hate. Murder people. Commit that heist. Be a terrorist. Whatever. As long as the character’s clearly the bad guy and the ending suits his/her crimes (i.e., a sympathetic/tragic villain gets a bittersweet ending and a brutal villain gets brutal justice/revenge enacted upon him/her), I’m totally game.

…that said, there are a few things I won’t stomach even from a villain. Those would be graphically written, violent rape (if it happens off-screen or is written to focus on the psychological horror more than the physical, I can usually handle it, but I nope out at graphic violence); graphically written, extreme torture (if it involves maiming, I’m gone whether or not it’s off-screen); or any form of animal abuse (it’s never necessary for the plot).

So basically what I’m saying is that if I’m expected to sympathize with the protagonist… well, I damn well better sympathize with that protagonist. If he or she is spewing hatred or committing injustices from the powerful position of “main character” or “POV character”, I don’t really care how awesome the rest of the book is. Strong distaste for the protagonist is enough to kill even the best plots for me, I think.

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