Do We Need To Like Literary Protagonists? Inspired by Elle Field’s Kept

Elle Field’s debut novel Kept deals with Arielle, a New Forest girl who found herself living in London without her dream fashion career, instead living off her (albeit very lovely) boyfriend Piers whilst also being haunted by her first love. After Piers kicks her out and she returns home, she realises she has next to nothing to her name…

kept-elle-fieldOverall, Kept is as gripping and enjoyable a chick-lit book as any (I, like some others, go through fits of addiction and nonchalance towards the genre). With two men in the picture and a total lack of career starting point, there are two main areas of interest that we see Arielle tackle, even though the romantic ending is pretty predictable.

The big question that this book stirred for me is how much do we need to like our fictional (just literary for today) protagonists? Arielle is relatable to many, in her inability to move on from a traumatic experience (a brutal break-up), her degree regrets and her efforts to keep it all together when down and out. (Admittedly she isn’t so relatable when Piers is paying her way for an easy, lazy life). However, being relatable is very different to being likeable.

If a character is like ordinary people then it doesn’t necessarily mean readers will like them- realistically, there are things about ourselves that we hate and many things about other people that are just plain irritating, so it’s unlikely that a book character could escape this fate. In a way, this means that it’s extremely hard to write a character that the reader can truly love- some accomplished authors manage it, but rarely straight away. Luckily, we don’t necessarily need to adore any characters so this plight is okay.

Arielle’s problem is that her experiences with Piers in particular made her very snooty, stuck up and sure of herself even when she’s slunk back home. She gets angry and shouts self-righteously a lot, often annoyingly after she’s interrupted someone or prematurely jumped to her own conclusions. She talks about fashion non-stop but mocks Obélix for being boring. In short, she’s a spoilt brat who blames others for her bad decisions and is often very grumpy.

But that’s the concept of the book! Arielle does redeem herself at least slightly by the end, and obviously some people will like her more than others. I was particularly impressed when she gained the resolve to sort her life out- a lot of the negative points about her I just listed are negated by the end of the book.

Oft-disliked protagonist Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart).
Oft-disliked protagonist Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart).

So what about other famous protagonists? Nick and Amy Dunne from last year’s smash hit Gone Girl are both pretty abhorrent- Nick because we never know whether he’s telling the truth and he seems remorseless, and Amy because… well, you’ll find out if you haven’t read it yet! Twilight’s Bella Swan is often explained away as an empty vessel of a girl designed so that any female reader could imagine herself in Bella’s place with Edward. The side effect of this, however, is that Bella is also considered annoying and whiny. Fifty Shades of Grey’s Ana is practically a carbon copy of Bella as a protagonist, unsurprisingly since the book started as Twilight fan-fiction. Kiss Me First’s Leila is also consistently a fairly empty and unlikeable person. At least Kept’s Arielle has more life in her.

In other big books of the moment: Sophie and Billy in Billy & Me are both inherently sweet and likeable, Skeeter in The Help is impossible not to root for with her quirks, Silver Linings Playbook’s Pat is caring and lovely (and we forgive him when he’s not because we know he’s got bipolar) and, finally, The Fault In Our Stars wouldn’t have worked if Hazel and Augustus hadn’t been able to make adults and teenagers alike both laugh and cry.

Clearly, there is no strict rule about how much we should like protagonists we see on the page; as long as their function and personal journey works within the story then it doesn’t matter. It’s simply more difficult for an author to create a fulfilling story if we don’t care about what happens to the main character. Although I think the four positive examples above worked flawlessly to pull readers in and like the characters, the more vile characters of Gone Girl only worked to make the thriller more thrilling!

As Elle Field did with Arielle, the best way to satisfy the reader is to redeem the character throughout the story, even if you need to take a different route than likeability to hold the reader’s attention in the first place.

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