Unlikable Main Characters

I usually write this blog as a writer, but today I’m going to put my reader hat on and pose a question to all my fellow readers out there.

Do you have your silly hat?

What do you, as a reader, do when you realize you hate the main character of a book?

I usually like unlikable characters. I’m a fan of Scarlett O’Hara and I always preferred Henry Crawford to that ninny, goody-two-shoes Edmund Bertram. But both Henry and Scarlett have a roguish charm that redeems them—they may not be the nicest people around, but they sure are fun.

Sometimes, though, protagonists end up with no redeeming qualities.

You may know that for the last six months (at least) I’ve been engaged in a slow slog through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. It’s a journey with a lot of ups and downs: sometimes I end up sitting in bed, reading way past the point when I should be asleep, and other times I have to force myself to finish the hundred-page prologue before calling the book a dead loss.

So far, though, I’ve managed not to give up. Jordan’s books follow a pretty clear pattern. They start out at a creeping pace, dragging through a very long prologue that often features characters who won’t star in the rest of the novel, then entering the pace of the book itself, which is somewhere at a fast walk or a trot. Then, at about 70-percent, they hit a run, and lots of things happen. This momentum usually carries me into the next book, where I hit a wall in the form of prologue.

It feels a little masochistic sometimes.

A couple of days ago, I started the aptly-named The Path of Daggers. I was really ready to find and actually use the latest MacGuffin, and the first third of the book finally fulfilled that promise. But then I reached approximately 46% of the Kindle edition, and I quit caring.


A hairy monster of a protagonist, also known as Rand al’Thor.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Rand is our shepherd turned chosen-by-prophecy king of the world. He’s also sitting dancing on the fence between sanity and madness. He’s very, very angry. But he’s not particularly funny or sweet or caring. (There’s no Whedon-villain whimsy here.)

In short, he has no more redeeming qualities. The farmboy we met in Eye of the World has long since been subsumed by a bitter, wounded man with powers that are destroying him.

To defend Jordan, he’s actually worked this (lightly) into the plot by having a secondary character point it out, point out that if Rand doesn’t lighten up soon, he’ll end up destroying the world in a fit of temper.

I just don’t care, though. I don’t even want to slog through Rand’s chapters to find out what main plot events will happen. I like some of the characters, but unfortunately, the main character is kind of an insurmountable obstacle.

So what’s a reader to do?

I said I would complete this challenge, and I will read all of this series. But how do I survive Rand? My soon-to-be husband’s solution in books like this is just skip the chapters with the hated character, but I’m a little too OCD to actually do that… and since Rand is the epicenter of this epic, I can’t really skip him without missing something vital.

What would you do, reader? How do you read books with unlikable main characters?

8 thoughts on “Unlikable Main Characters

  1. Ah, Rand al’Thor. At least you’re finally on Path of Daggers. Just a few more and you get to Sanderson’s books. And I’ll tell you that Rand gets better when Sanderson takes over. The latter half of Wheel of Time is very… the word escapes me right now, but it’s the reading equivalent of “trudging.”

    As for unlikable main characters, I recently finished Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.” I’m not sure what Grossman’s deal was, but his characters are about as likable as the young adults in a Friday the 13th movie. You sigh and resign yourself that they’re terrible and annoying, self-absorbed drunken dickbags that you’re waiting for to die.

    So that’s what I do when a main character is unlikable. I pray that the author did this on purpose in order to make me happy when he does something bad to them.

    • Drew here, Kristin’s erstwhile fiance.

      Yeah, I read the Magicians a while back, and after I finished, walked out to Kristin and said ‘Ok, now I feel like killing myself.’ The entire experience was a combination of depression and ennui that left me hating the main characters being spoiled brats, and myself for actually hoping the book would turn into entertainment.

      I told Kristin she should probably read it as it’s sort of a commentary on our generation’s lack of self-improvement ( like Fight Club ) / overemphasis on wish fullfillment but there’s no way in hell I’d ever read the sequel:

      “Julia’s group becomes interested in summoning ancient gods. The resulting chaos includes a graphic and disturbing rape scene. Ultimately, the book ends in an extremely unsatisfying manner, with no answers to multiple questions.”

      Yeah, thanks, I’ll pass.

      It’s a fine line between where a person will dislike the character and still engage with the story and when they’ll just check out.

      • It’s at that point where I want to see bad things happen to them now, that’s the worst part. I’d read the sequel to see if some of them DIE, because that might make up for the first book. :\

  2. Okay, from the perspective of my advanced years (yeah, just turned 50), I can firmly say that if I don’t like the main character, I don’t read the book. Which is why I gave up half way through The Magicians (since that seems to be the whipping-book-du-jour). There are too damned many books in my TBR pile to plow through the ones I don’t like.

  3. I’m with Liv, there are too many wonderful reads out there to feel like you HAVE to finish a book you are not enjoying or in which you don’t like the characters. Move on (and I’m older than Liv–not saying anymore)

    • LOL.

      The trick with Wheel of Time is that I really like *other* characters — just not the main character! So I’m sticking with it, at least for the time being. Plus, I’m stinking stubborn. 🙂

  4. I don’t mind unlikeable characters as long as they have some charm, humor or eccentricity that makes me feel compassion toward them. I tire of the character, though, if there is a lack of reflection on their part, or some sense of personal evolution. Marin Amis teems with unforgiveable characters who I really enjoy reading — I think b/c they have a lot of sass. I would enjoy swapping chapters with you sometime. I write teen and MG fiction. I’m at http://literarymom.wordpress.com/ and am also an IU graduate! (Art history, MA, 2001).

  5. I’m currently at 62% of “A Crown of Swords,” at which point he’s devolved hard. His naivete and stubborn fumbling early on was much more likable, and I get that he’s got the madness coming in but he’s worse than Book Five Harry Potter. Nynaeve is also frankly disastrous but has her moments of self-awareness, and I’m holding out hope that her block is overcome with perspective, maturity, and humility. (Please don’t spoil if it isn’t, haha)

    I got on this for the Sanderson involvement in the first place, and am relieved to hear he redeems Rand more.

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