Way back in June I wrote a post about character likeability. Then, my main point was that I don’t need to like a character, but I need to be compelled by them. The post as a whole makes sense and has some excellent points. Yet now as I sit here wanting to return to the topic after reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, I realize that I never pinpointed what I like, or what a likeability factor is.
I’ve learned, after reading a book where I initially felt intense dislike for the main character, that likeability is an abstract, that there is something every reader identifies with in terms of a character’s makeup. There are things I personally need in a protagonist to get me rooting for them that perhaps don’t even blip on other readers radars.
I read this article about Mary Higgins Clark being the anti-Gone Girl (for those who are unaware Gone Girl is another title by Gillian Flynn) a year before I wrote my post. The exposé on Clark illustrates all the aspects of her main characters that make them the antitheses of Flynn’s protagonists.
For the record, I grew up reading Mary Higgins Clark. She was my introduction to mystery. Where Are The Children?, Daddy’s Girl, Loves Music, Loves to Dance, and A Stranger Is Watching are still some of my favourite books. While her main characters could be described as formulaic, as a fan I would argue that they are very distinct. They’re all middle aged women, some mothers, some not, who have survived great tragedy while still managing to keep their chins, spirits, and courage up. However, each is a whole separate person. I can organize them individually in my mind when I line them up. What links them all is that they are all brave, kind women who get the job done without losing those aspects of their characters no matter what evil they face.
Then we have Libby Day, the only character I know written by Gillian Flynn. Libby survived a nightmare of a tragedy when she was seven years old. We come into her life at 32. She’s never held down a job, she has no friends, there are days she doesn’t leave her bed to even feed her cat, and her banker is calling her incessantly because the charity fund she’s been living off the later part of the past 25 years is dry. No one should have to live through what Libby did, but she survived. Damn if she’s going to make the most of it.
At first I found her lack of motivation unpalatable. I also dislike liars, cheats, violent people who suffer mood swings, and wallowers. Libby is all of those things and then some. I refused to give her any sympathy because she’s just a nasty person. Granted I understood why, but that wasn’t enough to make me like her.
Yet as I got further into the story, and Libby started to look at her past and realize the pieces didn’t fit together as she once believed, I grew a grudging respect for her. She realized she wanted answers and it was time to get up and get them. This helped me get through the dark story of her early life.
I also have to admit that I think I refused to like Libby because I am a lot like Libby. Dark Places hit a bit too close to home in some respects and I didn’t like a lot of the reminders. If we were to cut straight down the middle and ask if I’m a Camp Clark type or a Camp Flynn type, I’d have to trudge over to the Flynn side and I’m not happy about that. But what can you do?
Like Clark’s characters, Libby is a strong survivor. Unlike Clark’s characters, she refuses to see the best of her situation. She’s mad. She’s mad that she survived her family being slaughtered. She’s mad at the entire story of her existence. Her response is a breath of fresh air for a pessimist (cough realist cough) like me. I suppose I can say I’m not programmed to like people like her. There’s an idealist part of me who likes to see characters get up when they get knocked down. Libby got knocked down hard, and she eventually got up when she was able, which is all any of us can really do.
While I agree with the writer of the article that Clark’s writing will always be timeless, I think there’s more to be said for Flynn’s. I think as people we aspire to respond to life’s challenges like Clark’s protagonists when really we tend to be the exact opposite.
Getting back to my main point though, here’s what I personally need in a protagonist in order to be able to read their story to the end: courage, a desire for truth and/or knowledge, and a willingness to get things done.
These might seem like minor qualities, or even broad entities, but I didn’t like Libby until she was able to look at her dark places and refused to look away until she found the truth. It was hard for her, but she did it anyway.
I can forgive a lot of the other bits of character as long as I get at least those three things. I know a lot of readers wouldn’t be able to continue with Libby because she really is that nasty. All things considered, I’m willing to give her, and other unlikeable females similar to her, the benefit of the doubt. However, I’m a rare breed when it comes to readers; I make it a point to finish books I start. Other readers will not.
What do you need in a character? Are there negatives that you can’t overlook no matter what? Which ones make you close the book for good?
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