Reading Unlikeable Characters

Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England and Exley, wrote an editorial in the Boston Globe (4/17/11) called “They love me; they love me not.” He is reacting to someone saying that “‘I just don’t feel like going to Brock Clarke’s reading and dealing with all his [expletive.] Does this make me a bad person?'”

Clarke then talks about fiction, including his, that are populated by unlikeable characters. That set me to wondering if 1) I would like his books (I read the first chapter of the Arsonist and it is pretty funny) and 2) I finish books when I don’t like the characters.

Recently I began listening to Chang-rae Lee’s book Surrendered which is full of unlikeable characters in pretty horrific situations. I didn’t finish it; I didn’t care enough what happened to any of the three main characters. This disappointed me because I really liked the characters in his book, A Gesture Life, even though the main character did not always make good choices. Joseph Kanon’s book,  Alibi, also has characters that didn’t make good choices and weren’t really likeable, but the plot was interesting enough that I kept reading. Certainly Dostoevsky’s books are filled with unlikeable main characters, but again the plot and the philosophical/ethical questions keep you reading (at least when you are in your twenties.)

Nowadays, I find that the characters are the major reason I keep reading a book. I frequently want to get back to find out how these people are doing. A thrilling plot will also keep me reading even if the characters are a little wooden. In a recent book discussion choice, The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club, the characters weren’t unlikeable; They just weren’t interesting.  Lisa Scottoline’s latest, Save Me, has a great plot, but with a first person narrator who keeps thinking the same thoughts over and over, I found it boring. (I usually read Scottoline for the the funny dialogue and twisty plots.)

Are there any books you like that have unlikeable characters but you still like the book?

PS: This has been a slow month. I am only at 36 books for the year. I’ve brought home at least 4 books in the past month that I started but did not finish. I’ve loaded a mystery along with Les Miserables on my Kindle for an upcoming vacation which won’t get me much further in my list. I will get to play a lot of games with my family and that will be fun.