If your protagonist is moody, bitter, sarcastic…?

In one of the most polarizing series of books I know, books which you either despise or passionately defend against all blasphemers, there is a character known as… Thomas Covenant.
I am in THAT camp. The one over there. The one whose collective reaction to Thomas Covenant was to tell him to, oh, just DIE already and if he didn’t believe anything he didn’t have to believe anything but he should just GET OUT OF MY WAY and stop whining about everything.
I could not get past the UNLIKEABLILITY of the protagonist. I could not get past it to the point that I simply could not find anything he said or did sympathetic, or understandable, or even defensible. He just annoyed me so much that I basically threw the books in which he lived across the room, once literally, and refused to read any more books by that writer, for better or for worse.
In one sense that might be considered a vindication – ANY character who creates that strong a reaction is its own kind of success; it’s a memorable character, and does not suffer from the wishy-washies. Love him or loathe him, Thomas Covenant is someone you REMEMBER,
So – just how important is a character’s basic likeablity to you? If you honestly and genuinely dislike/hate/despise the character who carries the story, can you ever allow yourself to get past that and read the book and even reach – if not sympathy – then an understanding?
There’s a reason I ask.
Bitter character illustrationSee, I wrote a book called “Random”. That book was narrated by a young lady by the name of Jazz, and Jazz had an older brother, Mal. In “Random”, Jazz’s book, Mal is a secondary character – an important one, to be sure, but still, secondary. Mal is at the moment this book takes place seventeen. He’s moody and bitter and sarcastic, even vicious. Readers noticed him, however – they noticed his PRESENCE. Some called him intriguing and said that they were looking forward to seeing more of him. Others just called him “whiny”, and “hard to like”.
Ah. Unlikeability.
The second book in this series, “Wolf”, is an answer to those who wanted to know more. This is MAL’S book, HIS version of events, told in first person, from the inside. And the responses have been interesting, to say the least.
Some readers have called him a “hostile witness”. Some say he still whines, at least in the beginning of the book. All true. He is all these things, and more. He is a troubled teen. At least one reader who loved “Random” confessed (after she bit into “Wolf”) that she was uneasy about a whole book with Mal at the helm because she hadn’t really liked him in the first book, and there it was in a nutshell.
I had created a Real Boy (TM) and I had a character on my hands who would not bend to public opinion in order to become “likeable”. He was the way he was because of good solid reasons. These reasons would be touched on and explored and explained in “Wolf”, and in my eyes they made this character one of the best people I’ve ever written about, flaws and all.
But would those people who had found him “unlikeable” in the first book… follow him far enough into the second to learn more about him?
The reader who confessed to her uneasiness about Mal’s being promoted to protagonist… also confessed to being in tears at the end of the story.
And to me, *that is the story*. This is a character who was tempered by life and events over which he either had no real control or which he might have botched his choices on… and it is a character who then took on the consequences of these events and these choices and made something real and unique and strong out of them. Built a life. He may not have easily fit anywhere, into any sort of box or slot, but that was okay – in the end he shaped the box to fit HIM.
I respect that. I admire it. I know that this is a flawed character, someone with cracks which are both deep and wide… but those cracks did not break him. In the manner of those wonderful Japanese pots, where cracks and crevices are filled in with gold which both repairs them and throws them into stark relief – they are fixed, but their existence is freely confessed and not hidden or swept under a rug. This is a character who allowed his damage to make him a better person, a stronger person, who used his cracks to build a more solid foundation on which to raise himself into something better, something bigger, something that transcends.
This is not an easy thing to do, and the process of doing it might render a character… somewhat less than likeable. But for those who persevered with Mal, the rewards were there. They may have ended up at the book’s conclusion with tears in their eyes – but they were the tears of triumph. If they stuck with him long enough, if they stayed the course which he had set himself to run and ran it at his side, he redeemed both himself… and the reader. He grew.
In the end, what makes a character in a work of fiction compelling? Likeablity (someone who is a cast-iron Hero with a Capital H and can do no wrong) or Respect (for someone who might have failed, might have failed hard, or often, but who will not let failure have the last word in his life)?
Read “Random”. Then read “Wolf”. Go meet Mal. I promise you, he’s worth it.
And read, Shifter, the last book in the series, featuring a character who many readers think is one of the most compelling (and likeable) characters I have ever introduced them to.