Monday, 15 October 2012

"I didn't like the characters"

Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull
When I see this sort of criticism, I can only shake my head. When did it ever become a prerequisite that characters must be likeable in order to enjoy a book? With so many unlikeable people in the world, why do so many readers require likeable characters? And why is this often the sole criterion for determining whether one likes a book or a film?

It's not about the characters' actions. It's about what the author is trying to say about their actions, otherwise known as the themes of a work. Far too often in modern literature, themes are neglected in favor of style. Readers seem to prefer formula over originality, and style over substance. This is why so many best-sellers today feature some generic guy with a six-pack on the cover. It's a sad day in the world when so much weight is placed on whether or not the characters were "hot enough".

Whatever happened to ideas?

Jake LaMotta (as portrayed by Robert DeNiro) is a thoroughly unlikeable, despicable character. But that doesn't make Raging Bull any less of a masterpiece. It's a treatise on violence in modern society, both as entertainment and as a means of conflict resolution. LaMotta is a man who works in both. He is flawed. He is human. That's what makes him interesting.

Holden Caulfield is another character commonly referred to as "unlikeable". Goodreads currently lists 48,601 one star reviews for The Catcher in the Rye, almost all of the naysayers complaining of the "whiny" Caulfied. Did the readers forget that this is a book about a conflicted teen? This is how teens act. They whine and complain, and they act immature. The character is an accurate reflection of reality, and for me, this is infinitely more interesting than reading a book where all the characters are flawless and inhabit some fairytale land where everyone is cute and nice.

But hey, that's just my opinion.


10 comments:

  1. Every time I start to rant and rave about how awful a character was, what a jerk they were, and how much I wanted to step through the pages of the book and pummel them into a ball of bruised flesh... I stop, step back, and realize that the author has done something remarkable. The author has made me *react* in a very visceral manner, to nothing but printed words on a page. That always impresses the heck outta me...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Exactly! If only more people went through the same thought process!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree, but only to a point. So much new stuff that is published now is so dark. I find that if I cannot see any redeeming qualities in a character that make me care about them I don't want to read the book. That said, neither do i like characters that are saccharine sweet. They have to be 'real'. One new master of making characters that would otherwise be despicable sympathetic is JD Mader. He can give the most dysfunctional character someone we care about. If I don't see that then I give up on the book.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think what it ultimately comes down to is what the author is trying to say about the character's actions. If there is no method to the madness, and the character is just fucked up for the hell of it, then why bother? What's the point?

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's about the difference between a critique and an opinion. I don't think it's wrong to hold the opinion that a book's character irritates me. Time is precious, and do I want to spend it with someone I wouldn't bother to endure a coffee break with? I have to want to pick up a book again - reading is meant to be a pleasure, not a job.

    On the other hand, my hating a character would not be a valid critique of a book. Literary criticism needs to involve more than just immediate sensation.

    ReplyDelete
  6. If a character irritates you, then ask yourself why? It might say more about yourself than the actual character. And the author must be doing something right if he/she can get under your skin like that.

    "On the other hand, my hating a character would not be a valid critique of a book. Literary criticism needs to involve more than just immediate sensation."

    100% agreed.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Obviously it would say more about myself, because the character doesn't exist. By the same token, if I wrote a novel where a female character is abused and raped and, in the end, accepts that stuff happens, and a female reader complained about that character's passivity, then that too would say more about herself. But does that mean it's not a valid opinion, or a good reason for her to be disappointed by the book's end?

    It may be that an author is doing something right to 'get under my skin'. It could also be that they are bigoted, narrow-minded, or just a crashing bore.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "But does that mean it's not a valid opinion, or a good reason for her to be disappointed by the book's end?"

    Her 'immediate sensation' may be disappointment. But I think if she took the time to ask herself why the character was passive, she may begin to understand the author's point, instead of rushing to write a negative review as if her opinion were a fact: "This book IS awful!"

    "It may be that an author is doing something right to 'get under my skin'. It could also be that they are bigoted, narrow-minded, or just a crashing bore."

    Here you are attributing qualities of the character to the author. Just because a character is a bigot, or narrow-minded, does not mean the author is. Bigotry may be a theme of the novel, and the author is trying to comment on that theme. It all comes down to what the author is trying to say.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Here you are attributing qualities of the character to the author. Just because a character is a bigot, or narrow-minded, does not mean the author is. Bigotry may be a theme of the novel, and the author is trying to comment on that theme. It all comes down to what the author is trying to say."

    True.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Adrian, nice blogg!!!
    I´m now following you. Please follow back at www.theandaluins.blogspot.com
    and participate in my goodreads giveaway: The Chamber of Thousands Caves, from The Andaluins Saga.

    More: www.theandaluinssaga.wix.com/saga

    Thanks!!!

    ReplyDelete