I had an interesting encounter on Reddit’s /r/books subreddit this week. The topic of discussion was Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (which, incidentally, we’ll eventually be covering in the Great Reddit Reading List). This book famously–or perhaps infamously–saw publication in two different forms; in the UK, it was published complete, but the American version omitted the final chapter. That chapter (21, if we’re keeping track) represents a crucial difference, because it is in that chapter that protagonist Alex chooses redemption from his previously terrible ways. The well-known Stanley Kubrick film adaptation follows the American version, leaving Alex unrepentant and unchanged after his experiences. (This issue is famously divisive; even Burgess himself was on record as saying that he wished he had not written the book, largely because of the version that made it to film.)
In the comments, the issue was raised of whether it’s possible to care about Alex if he experiences no growth, no change. This quickly devolved into an argument as to whether a character–and for our purposes, we’ll specify the protagonist–should be cared about. One individual made the claim that characters aren’t there for us to care about:
The ‘point’ of a character is not necessarily to be ‘cared about’.
Or, put another way:
The point of literature as a “whole” is not to produce sympathetic characters for you.
This makes for an interesting question, and I’m curious what you, as readers, think. I think it’s a given that not every character–not even every protagonist–is or should be sympathetic; the history of film, for example, is littered with protagonists that are evil and despicable (though, perversely, they seem to gain sympathy as they become more iconic–think Norman Bates, for example–but that’s a topic for another time). But it’s not a question of whether they are sympathetic, so much as a question of whether we should care about what happens to them. Darth Vader was intended to be a dark, evil, and merciless villain, but we cared very much about what happened to him, even back to his first appearances in A New Hope. (He’s since received a redemption scene, of course, and also benefits from a history of badassery, but my point predates all of that.)
I think we can agree that the production of characters we care about is not the ‘point’ of literature; but is that care necessary? My argument is that care, in this sense, is a necessary part of interest in the character. If we don’t care what happens to this person, why are we reading about/watching/playing him or her?
I’m tempted to look at this from the perspective of a writer; but this isn’t about me as a writer, it’s about us as readers. Therefore, I’m doing something I haven’t done on this blog before: I’m posting a poll. Cast your votes below! Should protagonist characters be someone we can care about, or does it not matter at all?
Thanks for voting, and as always, thanks for reading!