Can you enjoy a story without good guys i.e., characters to root for)? (Spoilers)

In a current thread about Dune, a Doper writes:

I have heard sentiments like this before, and I am always mystified. I can’t stand reading books or watching shows/movies/plays that are populated only by victims and villains. There has to be someone in the story I want to root for, whom I want to win; and that person had better be the main character. If the main character is villainous, then I need him to get his comeuppance.

I couldn’t make it through Dune for that reason. More recently–last week, specifically–I lost interest in Burn Notice because Michael Weston crossed a line in

committing cold-blood murder – not to serve his country or save a loved one, but simply out of a desire for revenge. As I watched the episode I had no desire for Michael to escape. I wanted Sam, Madeleine, and Jesse to betray him for their own good, because he no longer deserved their allegiance; and though I know that wouldn’t happen and that he’d get away, I was annoyed when he escaped his pursuers, because his pursuers were in the right.

But that’s just me. What about the rest of you?

Old myths never have good guys, according to modern moral standards.

Both sides fighting over Troy are shortsighted, misogynistic, violent, I-don’t -care-how-many-civilians-get-killed-as-long-as-I-get-the-glory bastards.

I’m sure it was not your intention to slander great Odysseus, my esteemed fellow champion of Athena. That bastard Polyphemus had it coming.

Joking aside, you do have a good point, though, though I have a counter. While I don’t like Akhilles even a tiny bit, I can emphasize with his position and aims in the Iliad; I understand and can agree with his reasons for sulking in the tent, and his desire for revenge on Hektor for Patrokles’ murder. He’s a monster, but not an utter monster.

Of course!

There’s no justice, after all. There’s just us.

QtM, deep in my lair, poking at evil.

I need a hero or heroine. Schwarzenegger, for example. Or Sigourney Weaver. Strong types that always win. :dubious:

Mention my love of Turin Turambar and the hobbit dies.


I don’t need good guys or sympathetic characters. Pretty much all I ask is that the characters be compelling and multifaceted. A whole story of Snidely Whiplash types would not be interesting to me.

Ditto with the “Of course I can.”

Harry Flashman is a total rotter, but I love (re-)reading of his misadventures and I root for him to overcome. Heroes can be boring.

How are you defining “sympathetic character”? To me a sympathetic character is one who holds my interest because I want to see him or her succeed in his aims, or one I want to see grow as a person because of the events of the story. And even that isn’t strictly necessary; I can handle a villain protagonist who ultimately loses (even if that loss is in that he gets what he sought only to realize the price was too high).

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, neither the narrator (Richard) nor any of his friends are especially likable, when you know them well. By turns they are arrogant, foolish, selfish, amoral, and untrustworthy. But this only becomes apparent when you get to know them well, and I was only willing to get to know them well because there were good things about them too. Had they been uniformly and wholly vile, I’d never have had the patience to finish the book. And had they not generally gotten what they deserved (more than their sins merited, in some cases), I’d not have ever re-read the book.

Yep. I recently finished J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and not a single character in that story wasn’t deeply flawed in some way. It was still a good book.

Likewise with the also-recently-finished The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. It wasn’t quite as good/entertaining as Rowling’s novel, but still enjoyable.

Nope, I don’t need to see them succeed or get what they want. It’s frequently fascinating to watch how they fail and how they react to failure. For example, I love the movie Closer (which I know a lot of people hate, but stay with me here). It’s ostensibly about the romantic misadventures of four people, but basically, all four people are jerks, and no one ends up happy in the end. That’s fine with me. I found the interplay between the characters very compelling, and their ultimate fates suited them. It really didn’t matter to me at all that I didn’t like any of the characters. Hell, I’d probably cross the street to avoid them if I met them in real life.

I agree. If all the characters are jerks or worse, and there’s no one in the cast I could stand to be around, the book gets set down, the channel gets changed, etc.

I need at least one likeable non-bit character to find a story (in whatever medium) at all enjoyable.

Short story, yes; novel, generally no. As other posters have noted, the “good guy” may be seriously flawed, but I need to empathize with him/her at some level. I think that’s why I was unable to finish A Confederacy of Dunces or The World According to Garp – I just didn’t like the characters.

Skald Galbasi, scëal balgaskannën! :smiley:

I need to have at least one person who isn’t perhaps quite as horrible as the others. In Dune, pretty much everyone is horrible, and I have never enjoyed the book. (you have some who are waaay more horrible, but no one who is less horrible.)

One of my favorite movies is “Pennies From Heaven”. The one with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters (and I also like the original British mini-series it’s based on). Mr. Sali can’t watch it, he finds it too sad and depressing. I say, “but it’s a good movie, you can’t say it isn’t well-made and entertaining, even so.” He agrees with that, but because it’s not a happy feel-good movie, he just doesn’t enjoy it. This from a man who loves Pulp Fiction, Fargo, and the Godfather.

I’m in this line. I don’t care how closely the “lead” character(s) in a story adhere to my personal morality, so long as there’s something about them that I find compelling. And yeah, “find compelling” is pretty vague, but experiencing a story is necessarily a subjective, “know it when you see/feel it” kind of thing, after all.

Yes. Unforgiven is what I’ll use for an example. The outlaws are likeable, but they’re not good at all and the characters that follow the law aren’t exactly likeable, but they’re after the outlaws.

I can enjoy a story without good guys, but it’s not as deeply satisfying. The stories I am most inclined to love are those that convincingly reassure me that good guys exist, and that—at least sometimes—they prevail.
I appreciated what CJJ* said in a related thread a few months ago: