As a reader, I’ve been
struggling to finish a book this week in time for next weekend’s book club.
When I tried to explain to someone what the problem was, I struggled, because
it wasn’t that I didn’t like the story or the writing style. “I just don’t care
what happens to the main character,” were the words that finally popped out.
That seemed a reasonable explanation. I’ve always held the belief that for a
book to be enjoyable, one needs to care about what happens to its characters.
As a writer this week I
read two reviews of my book. Note to writers: I wouldn’t suggest doing this
often. It’s like obsessively checking the scale when you’re trying to diet; it
can be helpful or totally debilitating. That said, I did it. And I was a bit
surprised that although one review was very favorable and the other we’re not
going to talk about, both readers had trouble liking my main character, Alex.
Now I don’t expect everyone to like the book or my character, but reading the
different reviews left me thinking, did I even want my readers to like Alex? Do
readers need to like a book’s protagonist in order to enjoy the story, or is it
enough to care about them?
Let’s be honest; there are
people whose lives we love to follow despite the train wrecks they are, people
we don’t particularly like. (My mind is screaming Honey Boo Boo right now.) But
do we care about them? Well, we care enough to tune in to the show, read the
online article, or follow the Twitter feed, so it seems the answer is yes. But
why? The answer goes beyond the go-go juice.
People aren’t perfect. We
all have weaknesses, flaws, defense mechanisms, and quirks that at certain
doses can be obnoxious, abrasive, annoying, and…entertaining. Laughing or
cringing at someone else’s inner ugliness allows us to come to grips with our
own. The reason we don’t want to read books or watch shows about seemingly
perfect people isn’t simply because it would be boring. It’s that it would be
discouraging. We turn to fiction, or these days distorted reality, to see
ourselves, our friends, our enemies, in all their flawed glory. We might not
always like what we see, anymore than we always like the reflection in the
mirror, but if we can connect, if we share even the smallest similarities, then
we care. So if an author fumbles as a writer, it’s not in creating a character
who isn’t likable; it’s in not developing a character enough for readers to
connect, a character round enough that the average reader can see a glimpse of
himself somewhere inside. Sharing (qualities both good and bad) is caring. But not always liking.
I guess my answer, then,
to my earlier question is no, I didn’t really expect too many readers to like
Alex, cetainly not all the time. Bad guys make predictable bad decisions, which
make for boring plots. Stories get interesting when the good guy, or girl, in
my case, do dumb things and has to struggle to rectify his or her mistakes.
As for that book club
book, I’ll keep plugging away, hoping to find that connection that makes me
care. And if it never comes, at least I can be certain there will be plenty of
likable company and our own brand of go-go juice come the weekend!