I’m reading a crime story with a fast-moving plot and terrific writing, but I may not finish it. What’s the problem? (Besides the fact that I’ve developed reading ADD.) The character, although well developed, is not someone I relate to, and the world she lives in is sleazy. I want to see how this story turns out, but every time I put the book down I feel like I need a shower.

I had this same problem with another book I read recently. In the middle of the story, the protagonist, supposedly a reformed criminal living a good life, participates in heinous crime. As a reader, I wanted him to get caught and go to jail. So I lost interest in the story. This happens for me with movies too. If there is not a single character who I find decent enough to root for, then I shut it off. I’m typically not someone who sees the world in black and white, but with crime stories, I want good guys and bad guys who are clearly discernable. (Elmore Leonard is the exception! And everyone can cheer for a likable jewel thief.)

Other readers in the book discussion said they didn’t have to like (or relate to) the protagonist to find a story compelling. I guess for me, good characterization means developing characters that readers care about, relate to, like, or respect in some way. But that definition may be narrower than the rest of the reading/writing world sees it. How do you define good characterization? Can it include protagonists who are unlikable or deeply flawed? Have you written a story with an unlikable protag, and what motivated you to do so?

  1. I think if a protagonist is flawed that readers like to see him/her struggle but succeed in maintaining their integrity. That’s one thing I’ve learned in writing.
    But I too have trouble reading a story if I don’t connect with the main character. In Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island, the main character is childish and immature even though he’s been a detective for years. When a grown man uses phrases like: “That’s for me to know and you to find out” it tends to distance me from him. I haven’t read anything by DeMille since then.

  2. As a reader, I have to get that sense of mutuality with the protagonist very early. Something has to click. In your books, it’s how Jackson feels about his daughter. He’s a good Dad and I like good fathers. As a writer, I can’t even imagine being able to stick with a main character I loathe. I have a tough enough time writing as it is! LOL.


  3. I definitely think that a reader needs to connect with the character. The character may be unlikable in the beginning, but it needs to develop in such a way that is positive and the reader can relate to. I find that if I don’t like the character or the way he / she develops, I abandon the book.

  4. Oh yeah. Read Owen Fiddler for a protagonist who is the epitome of “flawed” – he’s written up as a lovable louse, you love to hate him and hate to love him. You feel sorry for him and at the same time you can’t stand him. And EVERYbody (who is honest with themselves) can relate to him in some (or many) ways.

    As usual, good post. I agree that the protagonist has to be someone you relate to and develop a “caring for” relationship with. I even like to – maybe not like, but at least empathise with the antagonist. Give me enough of a developed character to let me know WHY he/she is so evil – what happened to turn them out like that, you know?

  5. I want a protag I can relate to, like, root for, or see a chance for positive change. Not necessarily all of those qualities, but something has to be there for me to read. They can’t be too perfect or too horrible or they become caricatures. The protagonist is why I keep reading a series.

    I read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. But I have to say, his last one, Nothing To Lose, lost me. Reacher always gets drawn into something but in this book he had absolutely no motivation for getting into this situation. It makes me hesitant to get the next one if Child has reached the point where he comes up with a plot then forces Reacher into it.

  6. I have to be able to relate to something in the main character to sustain interest or invest any real energy in a book or movie. Otherwise it’s like watching a bad Sci-Fi Channel movie – it’s just a body count to see who goes first and you really just don’t care…

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