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Why Read a Book with an Unlikable Character?

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

Lessons learned from reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Why spend time reading a book when you dislike the main character?

America publishes more than 300,000 books per year through traditional publishers, and the number is more than doubled when you add self-published works. So here’s an age-old question for readers: With all those choices, why spend time reading a book when you dislike the main character?

Consider this.

The most unlikeable character impacts you the most.

I came late to the Olive Kitteridge party. The book was written by Elizabeth Strout and published by Random House in 2008. I had seen it in bookstores and knew it was getting good reviews, but it took me more than a decade to actually read it. Truth is, even the title put me off. I couldn’t get excited about reading about a woman named “Olive,” a name that called to mind the unattractive, knob-kneed Olive Oil from the cartoon series, “Popeye the Sailor Man.” (Kudos to you Elizabeth Strout, for choosing a name that depicts the nature of the character herself.)

In my book journal, I recorded my thoughts:

“When I first started reading this book, I didn’t know if I could even stand to finish it because I disliked the main character so much, begging the question: ‘Can you like a book if you dislike the main character?’”

Olive lives with her husband, Henry, a pharmacist, in the little town of Crosby, Maine. The town is populated with people who have their own quirks and backstories. Olive Kitteridge contains thirteen chapters that focus on events in the lives of various townspeople. The only common element is that Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher, wanders in and out of each chapter.

Reminiscent of Winesburg, Ohio

As I read, I kept thinking of Winesburg, Ohio, written a century earlier by Sherwood Anderson. I wondered whether Strout was purposely modeling her book after the classic work published in 1919. Then I decided that it didn’t matter. Lots of books are written about the various characters of small-town life, and the purpose of those books is to display the vices and virtues of humanity in every possible form. (In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking about the genre of novels written about the small-towns and the “characters” inhabiting them.)

The back cover of the novel describes Olive as

“…blunt, flawed, and fascinating.”

Boy, did the publisher get that right.

Olive was acerbic. Sometimes, her brusque comments bordered on rude. She was volatile and illogical at times, but she was compassionate and perceptive at others. Her brutal honesty and head-on approach to dealing with people were often abrasive, but when Olive’s husband has a stroke, she becomes vulnerable in her loneliness — and thus, a little sympathetic. Olive Kitteridge was an odd one, all right, but she is one of the most human characters I’ve read.

The author herself, Elizabeth Strout, imagined a conversation she had with her character, Olive. She says,

“…you are the most fascinating to me. You are ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel. In essence, you are a little bit of each of us.”

In spite of the misgivings I recorded in my book journal, I did finish reading Olive Kitteridge, and I’m glad that I did. While I never grew to like Olive, I gained begrudging respect for her and saw people I knew embedded in her personality.

Lessons learned from reading Olive Kitteridge

Strout’s protagonist taught me two lessons:

First, as a reader: Yes, I absolutely CAN like a book where the main character rubs me the wrong way. I can value the craftsmanship and the message of the work even if I don’t love the protagonist. I can admire the structure of the book that skillfully interweaves diverse stories, even if it’s done with a character I don’t like. The novel, Olive Kitteridge, is one I’ll keep on my shelf because of the humanity it portrays, even if that humanity isn’t necessarily pleasant.

Secondly, as a writer: Crafting a complex, multi-dimensional, “real” character is harder — and more important — than creating a cardboard one. That unlikable, quirky, odd character is far preferable to a perfect protagonist. Case in point: Detectives are annoying when they always have the right intuition and ALWAYS solve the crime. Characters who are inevitably happy, continually funny, or perennially positive are not believable, nor are they a true reflection of humanity. Too much goodness makes a character unlikeable, too. Olive, on the other hand, is real.

Kirkus Reviews stated that in Olive, Strout created

“ . . . A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plenty of anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits, and lifelong loyalty.”

Elizabeth Strout acknowledged that her characters are multi-dimensional, complex characters. She says,

“It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.”
No character I’ve ever read better reflects “the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfection of life” than Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for 2009, an award given “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” The novel has sold more than a million copies.

In 2019, a sequel, Olive, Again, was released.

It remains to be seen whether readers like me who weren’t particularly fond of Olive will appreciate her as much the second time around as they did the first.

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