Do You Need to Like the Characters in a Book to Enjoy it?

I’ve seen some people say that “characters don’t need to be likeable”, and while I totally respect anyone who feels that way, it’s just not for me.

  • I need to like the person I’m reading about.
  • I need to be able to respect them or at least understand and sympathize with them.
  • I need someone to root for.

If those things are missing, then I won’t be able to enjoy the book.

The character doesn’t have to be perfect, of course. They don’t even have to be nice (The Young Elites handles this wonderfully). But I need to be able to care about them or click with them in some way. If I have nothing but hatred or cold indifference for a character, how can I like the book?

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This was a problem for me in The Girl on the Train

I hated EVERY character. Or if I didn’t hate them, then I at least found them annoying or didn’t particularly like them.

This is one of the main things that killed my overall enjoyment for the book. Because I couldn’t root for anyone, I became indifferent about the plot and solving the mystery. It was so hard for me to care about any of it if I wasn’t invested in any of the characters.

The main character, in particular, was hard to like. At first I understood why she was so unstable and I sympathized with her. But then she got worse, kept repeating the same mistakes over and over, and she honestly just seemed like the most annoying drunk ever. She lost my patience and my sympathy.

I’m fine with hating a character, but I need to love hating them

This one is tricky. Sometimes there are bad characters in a book—villains and whatnot—but I need to love hating them.

There’s a fine line between a character who’s just so annoying that you can’t stand reading them, and a character who you love reading because you actually enjoy the process of hating them. Does that even make sense? LOL

Back to The Girl on the Train, all the characters sadly fell into the former category for me. They just got annoying. I couldn’t stand them. It was exhausting to watch them make the same mistakes over and over with seemingly no progress. I got bored of how annoying they were.

How about you? Can you love a book without loving the characters?

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I'm a 27 year old California girl living in England (I fell in love with a Brit!). I like to inject a little #girlpower into the WordPress development community by teaching women how to be coding badasses. more »

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27 comments

  1. That was my issue with Gone Girl. I hated everyone so didn’t enjoy the book. So I’m with you and that tells me I shouldn’t read this book either.

    1. I feel like for Gone Girl that was kind of the point, to a certain extent? The beginning made Nick out to be a douche canoe so that we suspected him until the twist came along and then suddenly you hate her.

      I definitely know the point you’re trying to make for sure, but I think for Gone Girl hating everyone was possibly intentional? Haha

  2. I always mention in reviews that I don’t need to like the characters to like a book, in fact I can totally hate them and I still will end up loving the book (has happened more than once) and like you mentioned the key is to love to hate the characters which is hard to do because authors always want to add an element that will make the characters lovable, I have no problem with bad people in books or villains, an it makes for an interesting and refreshing read!

    1. The villain can, and should, be an asshole. But the protagonist being an awful person is something that I just cannot enjoy.

  3. I just finished Gone Girl not to long ago, and I hated EVERYONE. I couldn’t even love to hate them. They all left such a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t get past it. It was bad.

  4. Yes! I just finished reading Girl on the Train and I had the same problem! It took me two tries to finish it because I really didn’t like any of the characters, especially Rachel. I couldn’t even sympathize with her. I ended up skimming most of her sections just to finish the book. I’m so glad I’m not alone on this.

  5. Wow. I had this on my TBR list but hating everyone in the book is a deal breaker for me too. Like others said, I didn’t enjoy Gone Girl for that same reason. It actually pissed me off that so many people loved it yet I just couldn’t. I also hate the feeling I have when I finish a book where I didn’t like the characters. It makes me feel like I just wasted a week of my life since that’s about the average time it takes me to read a book.

  6. I don’t like any of Gillian Flynn’s characters, but I still enjoyed her books. Her characters were interesting even if they weren’t likable. And it was almost the same with Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty. I didn’t particularly love all the characters but I found them interesting and wanted to know what would happen to them. But I don’t want to read books like that a lot, I’d rather have characters that I can love and root for. Those are the books I want to read over and over again!

  7. This is a tough one, mostly I would say yes, I must like a character to like the book, because otherwise you won’t care, will you? But there are two notable exceptions to my rule: Tease by Amanda Maciel, which was narrated by a bully, but somehow it just worked and Something Blue by Emily Giffin – I wasn’t a fan of Darcy, even more so after Something Borrowed, but, again, it kind of worked.

    Otherwise, yes, otherwise I’ll likely end up losing interest.

    And I may be the only one, but I thought The Girl on The Train was way over-rated. IMO there are far, far better thrillers out there. It kind of baffles me how some books just take off, when there are better ones out there, but what do I know? XD

  8. I totally agree with you (although I didn’t have that problem with Girl on the Train – but I can understand why you did). I need to care about the characters in some capacity, even if it’s a love/hate thing. Ambivalence = lack of interest.

  9. I think there’s a huge difference in hating a character and being annoyed by a character. I can totally hate characters (even every single character in a book) and still love the book (every single one of Herman Koch’s books), but I can’t handle the book if the main characters are annoying…especially if the annoying character is a narrator.

  10. My gut reaction is to say a definite yes to that, I can love a book if I hate the character, so long as I love to hate them as you put it. If I’m interested in what makes them tick and what makes them what they are and am curious to see what would happen to them.
    But I’m trying to think of books where I hated the characters and still enjoyed it, and I can’t think of a single one, really? Maybe Vicious by V.E. Schwab but I didn’t really hate anyone. I loved them even though logically, I really shouldn’t. A bit like how I love Loki even though, hello, he’s the villain and he’s killed many people (he’s adopted).

    So, although I feel like my answer is “yes”, evidence would suggest toward “no”? lol

  11. I definitely agree that I have to like (or understand) the characters to enjoy the book. If I don’t like the main character then there’s just no way I can click with them and enjoy the story, I get pushed out of the story and stop caring about them. For example, I have some really big issues with Aelin in Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas. I actually just did not like her and her entitlement at all. This really impacted my feelings about the book and how much I enjoyed the story, it even made the ending have a lot less of an impact because I just did not CARE. If it wasn’t for every other character in that book then I would have really hated it! Mannon & Elide were the characters that I loved the most and were it’s saving grace.

    So I definitely think that liking, understanding or caring about the characters is a big thing about liking a book!

    As for The Girl on the Train, I have no interest in reading this or even seeing the movie. So I can’t comment on it haha.

    1. Ohh that’s a bummer about Empire of Storms. 🙁 🙁 I actually haven’t continued past Heir of Fire though I think I’d like to give it another try after the final book comes out.

  12. I felt somewhat the same with his one. I am ok with characters that are completely unlikeable…but they can’t be annoying.That is actually one of my biggest turn offs. The characters need to make me have some sort of reaction (other than aggravation) or I just can’t get into a story…no matter how great the plot.

  13. Characters are for me the most important part of a book. They can make or break it for me. But I don’t have to like them. If they’re pure evil and awful characters, I won’t like them. But I have to love to hate them. Like Levana in the Lunar Chronicles. But when there are characters I SHOULD like and root for, but I don’t, then I most likely will not enjoy the book.

  14. I am trying SO HARD to get into The Girl on the Train ( I want to read the book before I see the movie!) but I find the protagonist SO miserable and unlikable that it’s been super hard for me to get through. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to power through it because I hear the mystery elements are really good, but it’s the first book I’ve read in a while where I severely disliked the main character so much!

    1. I’m sorry you’re not loving it either! 🙁

      For me, the mystery elements didn’t end up being “worth it”. I think that’s just because I hated the characters so much by the end that I couldn’t even get invested in the mystery. It’s interesting, for sure, but by that point I was just too far into “I don’t caaaaaare!”

      I hope that if you make it through you’re able to appreciate the mystery more than I did!

  15. i agree, I need to like characters at least a little in order to enjoy a book. I read a quote the other day on twitter from an author who said she didn’t like the word “unlikable” because you didn’t need to like a character, you just need to understand them. And maybe that’s true for like the quality of a book or what it offers on a larger, literature and humanity scale. I can say it’s a well written book or has a good perspective. But if we’re talking ENJOY then I totally need to have fun spending time with these characters – even if that is a love to hate kind of thing. It’s like in real life – there are people I understand and respect (or understand and don’t respect but am still polite to) but that doesn’t mean I’m inviting them to my birthday party. If I’m going to spend a few hours of my sparse down time with a book, enjoying that time is important and if I don’t like a character, I don’t enjoy the book.

  16. This is the same reason why I haven’t finished Girl On The Train (I have people that look at me weird all the time because of this). I simply didn’t like any of the characters so I could not finish it.

    Ordinarily, I don’t need to like all of the characters, I’ve very much a fan of loving to hate characters. However, there has to be at least one person that I do gravitate towards. If not, I can’t read it.

  17. For me to like a book, or any work of fiction for that matter, I have to sympathize with the main protagonist, and for me to do that, they have to be, at their very core, a good and kind person. They are allowed to make mistakes, but they are not allowed to be cruel or completely self-centered.
    This is why I hated Catcher in the Rye. The kinds of flaws that a protagonist can have are different from the flaws an antagonist can have. If the protagonist is completely nasty and rotten, like Holden was, then I will hate them. But since they are the protagonist, I feel as though I am obligated to like them, and so I feel guilty for not liking them, making the book a chore to read.

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