Do you need to really like the main characters to enjoy a book?

I read an article recently that brought to mind something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; do you need to like the characters very much in order to enjoy a particular story? My book, The Sham has a lot of not-very-nice girls which seems to be following a trend in YA at the moment and certainly it’s quite common in adult fiction too. I enjoyed Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train precisely because the main character was so unreliable. I loved her because of her faults, not in spite of. The same for Gone Girl; while I couldn’t exactly relate to the notion of faking my own death, I still loved the book. 

There’s a wonderful article on “likeability in fiction” in The Millions that quotes Lionel Shriver talking about unlikeable characters – “Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.” We Need To Talk About Kevin or indeed, Notes on a Scandal would have been terribly boring books without the misbehaviour of the main protagonists. I guess if they’re written with some degree of empathy (there’s more detail on how to write great characters on Mary Kole’s kidlit.com here) and there’s something we can like or understand about them, then it doesn’t really matter. Moreover, books are a way for us to live vicariously through other people’s awful experiences and indeed, if they help us to question our own behaviour then it’s never a bad thing.


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