'I have to like the main character in a novel in order to enjoy reading it,' a friend once told me. 'If I can't like them, then I need to empathise with them, at the very least.'
A while back, I read Peter Høeg's novel 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow,' and it got me thinking about whether a protagonist should be likeable. You see, Smilla Jaspersen, the main character in Høeg's novel, isn't. Not to me, anyway. She describes herself as a bitter shrew; her personality's as cold as the Greenland ice on which she was raised. She professes to love her neighbour's son, six-year-old Isaiah, but she's not above hitting him. Her feelings for the man she refers to as 'the mechanic' rarely rise about the carnal, despite her alleged tenderness for him. And yet Smilla is a mesmerising character. She's possessed of an acerbic tongue, she's mistress of the quick riposte, and she'll fight dirty with screwdrivers or whatever implement comes to hand. I neither liked nor empathised with her, but she made a fascinating character to lead me through the book.
Let's look at other fictional nasties...
Unpleasant characters abound in novels, of course, but they're often cast as the antagonist, with a thorough comeuppance served up at the end. Let's look at some novels where the lead character, as opposed to the antagonist, is very definitely someone with a nasty streak. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley springs to mind. Charming, amoral and ruthless, surely he's far most interesting to the reader than the dull Dickie Greenleaf? Or what about Scarlett O'Hara? She's vain, she's selfish and yet isn't she compelling, especially when compared with the vapid Melanie Wilkes?
Moving to historical fiction, Mary Saunders from Emma Donoghue's novel 'Slammerkin' is shallow, self-serving and impulsive. She trades her virginity for a ribbon and uses the infatuated Daffy Cadwallader without compunction for her own ends. Tom, Scarlett, Mary; we may not like them but we can't ignore them, and all three fascinate and compel in equal measures.
The lure of the antagonist
Some books have the reader rooting for the villain simply because their counterparts aren't likable either. As a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' for school, I loathed Angel Clare with a passion. He's supposed to be a moral man, with Christian values, but his behaviour stinks. Sure, he's a product of Victorian England, but could he be any more hypocritical? Rejecting Tess for not being a virgin immediately after informing her he's not one either? Alec D'Urberville may be the villain of the book but at least he doesn't pretend to be the good guy. In that, if nothing else, he's far more honest than Angel Clare ever is. I know which one I prefer.
Why is it the bad guys are often more interesting? Take Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's 'Rebecca', as well as Rebecca herself. Don't these two women possess more fire, more spirit, than the second Mrs De Winter? What about 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'? Doesn't Hyde draw us in far deeper into Robert Louis Stevenson's novel than Jekyll ever does?
What's behind all this?
I believe many of us harbour a dark side. Most of us lead law-abiding lives and are decent enough people, but I suspect we like to examine life's grittier side occasionally. From a safe perspective, of course. Why else would crime and horror novels be so popular? We're like children, scared yet thrilled by tales of witches and warlocks; there's something compelling about the seamier side of life. For me, that explains why often it's the bad guys in novels who grab the limelight.
What about my friend, though, who prefers her characters to be the good guys? For me, fascination can replace empathy, but for her it's clearly different. I suspect the reason here is because many people choose to identify with the lead characters in a book, to walk in their shoes, experience life through their eyes. So it makes sense that we'd want to like them, because for the duration of the book, we become them.
What do you think?
What's your take on this? Do you root for the good guys or do you prefer your fictional characters more flawed? Leave a comment and let me know!