Protagonists Who Are Difficult to Like

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There's been a lot of discussion on mystery readers' sites lately about books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Some pan them because the protagonists aren't very likeable; others claim they brilliantly reflect the realities of life. The fact that The Gold Finch won literature's highest reward indicates that reflecting reality is a big deal for the important voices in publishing and reading.

I read The Girl on the Train last week, and I have to say it was well done. I was drawn into the woman's blurry world, and I guess I understand better now what it's like to be an alcoholic, promising yourself you'll do better tomorrow while you pour yourself another drink today. I never read Gone Girl, having heard there was no one to like in the book, and I stopped just over halfway through The Gold Finch, tired of the young man's spiral downward to the point that each time I set it down, I didn't want to pick it up again.  Whether that makes me a low-class reader or not I don't know, but in any movie I watch or book I read, I want someone I can cheer for, someone I like.

That's not to say I don't enjoy a protagonist with issues. I fell in love with Craig Johnson's books because Walt Longmire was so troubled in the first one, and Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight and the Todds' Ian Rutledge grabbed me for the same reasons. In those books, however, the protagonist tries to assure that the problem he has doesn't make the situation (whatever the mystery is) worse for others. It only makes things harder for him personally.

Loser, my homeless protagonist, is that type. She's got lots of issues, but she's desperate not to inflict them on others. For me that signals the type of nobility required of an appealing protagonist: a lack of selfishness. The boy in The Gold Finch and the woman in The Girl on the Train are so wrapped up in themselves that they make others pay for their hurt and anguish. Yes, they have excuses, but so does Loser, so do Walt Longmire and Ian Rutledge. It's their determination not to inflict their hurt on anyone else that makes them, for me anyway, worthy protagonists, people with whom I can spend a few hours of my time without feeling I've wasted it.

So while I admit to the talent of writers who can accurately portray unlikeable characters, when those characters are protagonists I'm left feeling vaguely unhappy at the end. There are already messed-up people in the world who are beyond caring whom they hurt. I prefer those who, though troubled, work to make the world better, even as they wrestle with their own demons.


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