I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he proclaimed a real distaste for the book Madame Bovary, saying there just aren’t any likeable characters in it. I came to Flaubert’s defense but, in so doing, realized that I’m often drawn to novels in which the main character/s shouldn’t be likeable. The readiest example is probably Rabbit, Run by John Updike. Although Rabbit’s actions are pretty irredeemable, I found myself strangely on his side. In Bovary’s case, while I didn’t believe she was a good person, Flaubert conveyed the stifling nature of her life in a manner that made some of her actions more understandable. I empathized with her, even though I didn’t agree with how she handled her unhappiness.
These aren’t characters who dance on the edge of morality, they aren’t charming rogues like Mal from the show Firefly or George, the charismatic king of thieves from Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books (he kept a collection of human ears, but he was just so dreamy). Everyone loves the likeable rogue, from the first moment we’re told the story of Robin Hood. But why do some of us also like the truly horrid characters, the ones who are entirely selfish and sometimes malicious to boot? The ones that, if we met them in person, we would run in the other direction?
On the other hand, in a world where we love movies about mobsters and shows like Breaking Bad (peopled almost entirely by characters who should inspire moral revulsion but mostly, somehow, do not), why do any of us expect novels’ protagonists to be basically good?
In my case I believe it all boils down to empathy. If an author (or screenwriter/actor/what-have-you) can make me understand the emotions a character is experiencing, even in a small way, if they can convey even a kernel of fellow-feeling, they’ve got me. I may revile the character’s actions, I may decry them in my thoughts, but I will keep reading…and I will often tell others how good a book it was.
Making us love good characters is easy. Making us care for the truly heinous ones, the dark ones, the anti-heros…well, that may take a greater understanding of human nature, an understanding that recognizes there is such a thing as being too good, that given the choice of Superman or Batman, most of us will pick the Dark Knight every time.