Where are the Worthy Characters?

I just finished reading a general market novel that left me wishing I had used that time to read a good Christian novel instead.
I am not going to name the book because it isn’t my intent to offer a review. But the novel reminds me of many others in the general market. Well-written, well-received, heavy with social commentary. And populated with characters I didn’t like and couldn’t root for. The character who got her unhappy ending didn’t deserve the outcome. The characters who got a happy ending didn’t deserve theirs. I was left feeling not uplifted by the read, but vaguely depressed. So to the end of evoking emotion in a reader, the author achieved success.
True, not every novel can or should be all rainbows and unicorns, but I think they should at least be populated with deserving characters, characters who, though flawed, ultimately grow to deserve their happy endings.
Your turn:
Do you mind when an unlikeable character gets a happy ending in a novel?

How do you feel when you encounter a worthy character finding a terrible end?

Do you prefer heroic heroes or anti-heroes? Why?

23 Responses to Where are the Worthy Characters?

  1. Louise Gouge June 5, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    I don’t like to see evil rewarded, and I’ve quit reading non-Christian novels altogether because that happens all too often in those books. I also don’t like main characters who are too stupid to root for. Although I usually stick with a book I may not be enjoying, I recently stopped reading a CBA book because of the dimwit heroine. I do like heroes and heroines who have something to learn, but not anti-heroes. And if a worthy character meets a sad end, I’ll never read that author again. Don’t break my heart! There’s enough evil in the world without reading about it in my leisure time.

  2. Jennifer Dyer June 5, 2014 at 5:44 am #

    Good questions… I recently read a book with a depressing ending, but the characters were doomed from the start. As it was written to honor a person in similar tragic circumstances, the author wrote a happy ending of sorts in the middle of the book. I think it has been a huge success because people love to see hope and beauty and triumph even among the harsh realities of life. Contrast that to a book I never finished reading because the main character died a meaningless death. It left me not wanting to read anything else from that author.

  3. JoAnne Potter June 5, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    I share your frustration. But, at the same time, avoid Christian novels because their characters so often lack depth and believable conflict. Life doesn’t often have a happy ending. We live in a world of sorrows. I want characters who look and feel real and that means grit and confusion. There is a place for novels with happy endings but for a Christian, that ending comes in heaven.

  4. Elaine Stock June 5, 2014 at 6:13 am #

    Good points, Tamela. One of the things that frustrates me as a reader is when what I thought was an excellent read ends with the “redeemed” character killed off. What’s the point in caring and rooting for this character–committing so many hours to reading the story–only to have him or her snuffed out?

  5. Jeanne Takenaka June 5, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    I don’t particularly care for anti-heroes. And yes, I do want the main characters—the ones I’ve been rooting for—to get a happy ending. If an unlikeable character has an arc where they actually change for the better in the story, I don’t mind a good ending for them. But if I invest myself in a likable character and then they get a crummy ending? Yah, I probably won’t be reading that author again.

  6. Thomas Allbaugh June 5, 2014 at 7:29 am #

    Good questions. These issues came up in a book discussion I was part of ast night. We’re reading Kent Haruf’s _Plainsong_, a novel about characters in broken circumstances living in a small Midwestern town in the middle of nowhere. More bad happens than good, and the characters often do stupid things. But are they “worthy” in the sense that you seem to be asking in this post? No. And why doesn’t good vanquish evil at the end? There are small movements of goodness: a pregnant teen, kicked out of her mother’s house, is helped by two aging bachelors. But other loose ends remain. The vision in this novel seems more like what life has always felt like before the second coming: evil continues to be evil and often doesn’t seem to face consequences, while goodness–the kind that truly loves and looks out for the welfare of others–is rare and often goes uncelebrated, unnoticed even. That’s the world we live in. I believe that there will be an apocalypse, when the veil is pulled aside and reality enters in and evil is vanquished. But I don’t need every novel to end that way.

  7. Erin Bartels June 5, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    While I don’t care for stories that glorify sin and evil and have the nasty characters coming out on top, I also don’t like pollyanna stories that work out perfectly for everyone. And with many Christian novels, I know the ending before I even begin reading (and I read a LOT of them). I like realism. Good, faithful people do not always get their reward in this life (Hebrews’ hall of faith is full of those who did not live to see God’s promises fulfilled, and yet they were faithful). If we take the Scriptures as our guide, sorry, things just do not always work out for God’s people because of the reality of a fallen and broken world. If you read fiction to escape, I guess that doesn’t matter. But when I read fiction, I want to be challenged. I want my assumptions to be turned upside down. I want to come out of it changed or with a keener perception of the world. Darn it, sometimes I just want the girl and the guy to NOT get together in the end!! :)

    • Heather Day Gilbert June 5, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

      I agree, Erin. I think if we write our stories following biblical patterns, we will show that evil is sometimes snuffed out/avenged in life, and sometimes it is not until death. And we’ll also see that good people suffer horrible things (Joseph in the pit for years). As authors, we can show these horrible things that happen to people, and yet I believe we must also show the light of God’s hope shining in. Sometimes, sadly, people reject that hope and make choices with long-lasting consequences. But we can read these stories (or see them play out in real life sometimes) and know that God is still in control and has a plan, even if we can’t always see it. So yes. I am with you. The more realistic/believable a story is, the more I’ll love it. I like deep characters who seem like people I know/have known.

  8. Carolyn Warren June 5, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    For me, it’s not just a happy ending I’m looking for. I want a satisfying ending, and that means a denouement.

    Recently, I read a historical romance by a bestselling author, my first time reading her. Although the hero and heroine got married in the end, the engagement scene was very poor and the wedding was skipped over altogether with a short epilogue. I was so let down!

    I thought, I read over 325 pages for this? I’ve been reading to see how they get together and you skip over the best part?

    The next time I was offered a book by that author, I said no thank you.

  9. DIANA HARKNESS June 5, 2014 at 7:55 am #

    I read mostly secular novels. I most recently read ones by Alan Furst, Ian McEwan, and Richard Peck. I prefer complex characters and don’t mind when the characters don’t get what they deserve. After all, which of us does? Which of us are worthy? Two of my favorite reads over the last couple of years are Swamplandia by Karen Russell and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I want characters that are complex, act in accordance with their complexity, win and lose battles, and come with a plot that makes sense and contains language that moves me to be a better writer. Every hero is flawed, every anti-hero contains something good. Protagonists and other characters will be hurt, wounded, and die. What matters is not whether they grow but whether I do.

  10. Wendy Macdonald June 5, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Tamela, I can relate to your words today. The last two recently published secular books that I read from the library were so depressing that I couldn’t finish them. I did learn some writing techniques that I liked, but some of the subplots were too offensive for me to keep reading (Somethings should be left up to the imagination of the reader).

    Older, classic, secular novels tend to be cleaner and more fun to read. There’s enough depressing stuff going on in the real world–I crave happy endings.

    My novel draft has flawed protagonists–but each has good will and a healthy conscience. Evil is not glorified nor rewarded. I don’t let my antagonists get away with murder either (pun intended).

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  11. Rick Barry June 5, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    I used finish every book that I began. Not anymore. If I get into it and the characters are either unbelievable or unlikeable, I close the book forever and move on. I don’t expect the characters to be perfect, but if the author can’t get me at least to care about them… Well, life is too short to spend my hours reading about fictional characters I don’t care about.

  12. Aaron DeMott June 5, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    I’m glad it’s not just me. That, and favorite characters dieing has put me off from a lot of modern novels.

  13. Jennifer June 5, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    I think there is nothing worse than struggling to try to like the characters in the book I am reading. In fact, if I can’t connect with or decide to root for a character, I can’t finish a book. My favorite characters are those who pull me out of myself to be someone better than who I am. I tend to like the ones who make the difficult, self sacrificing choices the best. Maybe one day they’ll teach me to be more like them!

  14. Chris Storm June 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    Funny you should post this. I just finished a general market fiction that is actually up for a Pulitzer and found it very disturbing. The author wrote the main character as, although likable at the very core, searching and finding meaning in the most darkest, twisted, evil places imaginable. I wasn’t hoping for that happy ending, because I knew that wasn’t coming. But some minor recognition of right v. wrong, good v. evil would have been nice. I actually felt as if the author was purposefully trying to convince me to abandon my ridiculous values. The problem was, as a Christian, I knew that the truth he was selling was a lie. Maybe that’s why the reading of secular fiction, although often displaying literary excellence, leaves us feeling betrayed and empty.

  15. Peter DeHaan June 5, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    I read books for entertainment and escapism, so a book that is too much of a downer is one I’ll never finish. Books don’t need to have perfect, ideal endings, but I do expect to feel good when I’m done.

  16. Linda Rodante June 5, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    I’m with you, Tamela, and with so many of the others who had similar things to say. Good vs evil and good (meaning God in the type of writing I prefer) winning is what the greatest book of all presents to us, and I like that format.

  17. Jen June 5, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

    I like stories of redemption, and often those start out with characters that are . . . Difficult. Not pretty. But when their lives sink low and they hit rock bottom, and the power of Christ transforms–oh goodness. Such a story makes my heart sing, because I know people in real life whose life story is reflected in those kinds of books, and reading such a tale makes me rejoice in the reality of those I know. Complex characters whose story lines reflect reality–those are the characters I love to read and hang on to.

  18. Jackie Layton June 6, 2014 at 4:56 am #

    Hi Tamela,

    If I know a book doesn’t have a good ending, I won’t start it. Same with movies. Life can be hard, and when I find time to read I want the happy ending. It doesn’t have to be sappy, but the conflict should be resolved in a satisfying way.

    Have a great weekend!

  19. Laurean Brooks June 6, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    Tamela, I’m from the old school where the good guys always win. I believe that’s how it should be. In fact, in the end (when the Lord returns) that is how it will be.

    I also like it when the bad guy makes a change for the good and you get that “Aha!” moment and think, “Hey, there is good in even the worst of us.”

    Give me a story where good prevails and evil is judged, and I’ll shout for joy. Anything contrary is deception. Though we may be fooled into thinking otherwise, none of us get away with anything.

  20. Zoe M. McCarthy June 6, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    For me, I see or hear about so much struggle and unhappiness in the world that I’d rather read a book where the author shows how characters can face their mountains and rise above them. I like to watch the characters grow, not to perfection, but to a better person.

  21. Connie Terpack June 8, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    I just finished reading a Christian novel that left me feeling the same way. All the characters were great except Jessie. She was a capital B, in spite of claiming to be a Christian. By the end of the book, I thoroughly disliked her and felt sorry for the husband going back to her (after an 8 year separation). I doubt that was the author’s objective, but Jessie was definitely going to continue making her husband’s life miserable.
    At present, I’m trying to get through a book written by a writer with a poor grasp of the English language. The prologue was great and made you turn the page. I’m up to chapter 5 and still have not come across the characters introduced in the prologue. Each chapter has introduced a new character. Continuity? None. Preachy? Very much so; way too much! Interest? Barely there–I’m more curious to see if it gets any better. I highly doubt that I’ll read past chapter 10. I’m using his book for “What Not To Do in Writing a Novel”.

  22. Lynn Johnston June 9, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    I agree. I like to see a note-worthy character come out ahead. It is also nice when a bad character goes through a Christian rebirth and becomes good.

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