Monday, October 01, 2012

Unlikeable Main Characters

OK, I'm warning you up front that this post contains spoilers for the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn!

I had heard a lot of good things about this book - thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing. Yes, I thought it was a crime novel, since the author had won awards for her other books, and the summaries for them on her website sound like crime. Gone Girl has had excellent reviews. I reserved a copy at my library (being very cautious about book buying these days) and waited. Well, it is a crime novel, I think. I'm not 100% sure because I'm only halfway through it. And struggling. A lot.

I was going to write this post around Page 40, and then I thought - Don't be silly. Give it a decent go first. But now I am up to Page (let me check) 174, and I keep thinking I should just put it down and give up. It's making me grumpy (goodness knows, I don't need encouragement that way at the moment!). Why? I hate both main characters. The story is told through two points of view: Amy (the wife who goes missing) and Nick (the husband left behind who starts to look suspicious). Amy is whiny and immature, Nick is self-obsessed and immature. They are both the kinds of people in their 30s that you (OK, I) just want to slap and say - Grow up!

Yes, I can see that the author is setting me up to think that Nick really has had something to do with Amy's disappearance. And that Amy may well have orchestrated her disappearance to pay Nick back for being a useless, irritating husband, and therein the mystery lies. Except I don't care about either of them. At all. I find myself wishing she was in Greenland or Kathmandu, just so she leaves the story. As for Nick, when he announces on Page 135, "Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me" - well, gee, Nick, I never did like you, so now I just loathe you!

I know that unlikeable narrators/main characters (Amy and Nick both narrate their own chapters - hers is a diary just so we don't assume she is still alive) are OK if you do them well, but I can't help being a reader who finds these characters distasteful and annoying. I have read books where the character is unlikeable, through their life choices and their attitude (think Andrew Vacchs's character, Burke, or Garry Disher's character, Wyatt). But those characters have something in them that the reader responds to. Burke is on a mission that we can empathise with. Wyatt is so intriguing that we want to know more.

Unfortunately, I just don't like characters who are dishonest. Plenty of readers disagree with me. A reviewer on Amazon said "It's one of those books you will feel the need to discuss immediately after finishing because the ending doesn't just come; it punches you in the gut." I don't think I'll make it that far. Or I'll skip to the end just to see the outcome, with nothing invested. Flynn herself says her characters are "narcissistic, selfish, and cruel." How true. And so I care almost nothing about what happens. It's the risk an author takes when they have unlikeable main characters.

I wanted to like this book. It's probably just me. Have you read it?


Kristi Holl said...

I have NOT read the book you are reviewing, so this comment is just in general about unlikeable POV characters. I have exactly the same reaction. If I don't find something admirable about the character, I don't care about what happens to them. And if I don't care, where's the page-turning tension in that? It's gone for me. And if I actively dislike them, I find myself irritated. Don't need it!

paul's pen n paint said...

I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on that...But if I do not like a book, I will not "struggle" with it, I just stop reading and find something that really grabs me. I just have to find something in a character that you can "like", even a little bit!

Sherryl said...

Yes, someone once said it's not that you have to like them, but some kind of empathy is necessary to keep reading.
I've finished the book - only because now I've written this review, I felt obliged to! I guessed nearly every twist (which was depressing) and the so-called punch ending left me thinking "so what".
Guess it's just not a book for me.