“I don’t like Katniss,” my wife, Lacy, explained the other day.
Yes, we’ve been reading The Hunger Games books, being very un-cool only to read them after the film released and the series again proved popular. As Lacy recently explained to a co-worker, being aware of novels like these is now our “family business.” After all, sad to say, many Christians frankly prove they either don’t understand fiction, or think that a Bad Book gives us license to be careless or even lie about its contents or author.
Still, that doesn’t mean anyone must read the books, or must enjoy them while reading. So far, Lacy’s perspective is the latter. And now that we’ve both finished the first book, I find that I somewhat agree. Though there’s growth, sacrifice, victory, and solid themes about our culture’s celebrity “warfare” sins, it’s still depressing stuff.
But until Lacy made her remark about Katniss, central character of The Hunger Games series, I hadn’t even thought about whether I liked her — that is, Katniss — personally.
Thus my question: for a good story, must its central character be likeable?
Or can a skilled storyteller skip what would otherwise be that requirement by creating a character who is mainly sympathetic?
This also applies to Harry Potter, by the way. Many readers, including my wife, find him not nearly as personally likeable as the supporting cast: Hermione, Ron, the Weasley twins, and many of the Hogwarts’ teachers. But if you had the world’s most evil wizard climbing inside your head, who made you an orphan, and who kept interfering with an otherwise ordinary wizarding education, you’d have people sympathizing with you, too. If anything, more-likeable supporting characters make the character of Harry even more sympathetic. And their natures make a better story; one case of Wizard Angst is enough.
For Christian stories, the likeable/sympathetic dilemma may be even more pronounced.
As author John Otte remarked last week, most Christian fiction is likely read by, um, Christians — yet so many of our novels feature main characters who are non-Christians. Are they likeable? For the Christian reader, perhaps not. Instead they are sympathetic. This is true especially if the story’s plot turning point, or climax, is his/her salvation.
Don’t misunderstand. I like plenty of nonbelievers in reality! Still, it’s like the difference between liking a female friend and loving my wife: I appreciate other women, but there is no comparison (and there shouldn’t be!). Similarly, I appreciate nonbelievers for their talents and kindnesses. But I only feel at home with faithful Christians. They aren’t just likeable people, with good traits despite their fallenness. They are redeemed family.
This also applies to nonbelievers’ and believers’ stories. Maybe it’s why I often prefer cheap, little-literary-value novels by Christians to masterpieces by nonbelievers. The non-Christian’s story may be a blockbuster. But that cheap tale — it’s by my brother.
Still, my brothers and sisters often produce stories with only sympathetic non-Christian characters, instead of likeable, though struggling, heroes who are also family.
With that in mind, I can level with non-Christian characters such as Katniss Everdeen, or Harry Potter, who are mainly sympathetic, likeable only at times. If their stories are great, and they are moving toward likeability, so much the better.
Yet for a Christian’s story, whose truths and beauties must move beyond common-grace echoes into specific-grace songs, I much prefer Christian characters. True heroes who remind Christian readers of themselves, with redemption and struggles alike. People who are not merely sympathetic, but likeable. People who remind me of Christ Himself, of God’s already-established yet coming Kingdom, of resurrection, and of family.
Note: After nearly two years of regular columns, Kaci Hill has needed to step back from her work. We wish Kaci well, and look forward to her future guest pieces.