Sometimes readers are unable to enjoy a story because they dislike the main character. I think this is often a deeper issue than straightforward antipathy and more likely caused by the absence of emotional engagement.
It is possible for a reader to forge a connection with a fictional character who has flaws and failings—it would be odd if they had none—or even with one who is extremely unlikeable. But to facilitate this vital rapport, the writer has to inspire empathy in the reader.
Perhaps the connection is secured only once the reader is able to see what others can’t. By ‘others’, I mean the other characters in the book. Once the reader has a unique view of the main character’s predicaments or struggles—sometimes even intuiting potential setbacks the mc has not yet discerned—the connection is made secure.
Once the reader can feel what the character feels, then they will feel for the character. This exclusive affinity builds a relationship between them. Once this is established, the issue of whether the reader likes or loathes the character, approves or disapproves of their actions, is of no consequence. The reader is intrigued. The reader is hooked. This is what matters.
Here is an example adapted from The English Lesson, a short story from my collection, When Planets Slip Their Tracks. The English Lesson is set in Germany and the main character is a teenage boy, Dieter, who lives in poverty with his mother. She can’t afford to keep her new baby. In the first piece, I have removed from the text some of the insight into Dieter's mind:
‘Dieter and his mother walked to the hospital. His mother set the slow pace because she had given birth the day before.
Ilse had been born in the bath to avoid stains on the bit of carpet in the other room. Dieter wiped the bath and lino afterwards and laid the baby in an empty drawer.
It was hailing. Dieter wrapped his scarf around his sister. They paused in the wood to shelter under a tree where his mother fed Ilse for the last time. While hailstones rattled on the back of his jacket, his sister sucked and sucked as if she would never taste milk again.
The hospital window was locked. They waited by the sign: Babyfenster. Dieter read the notice beneath:
If unclaimed after eight weeks, your baby will be adopted. Why not leave a letter for the child to read in the future?
Dieter’s mother was in no condition to write. Dieter had tried, but words for the unknown were inevitably stiff and formal.
After ten minutes, a sensor triggers an alarm alerting the duty-nurse to the new arrival.
It wasn’t a long wait. It was better than leaving her on the cold steps.
Keys rattled inside. Dieter’s mother asked him to open the window. It was actually a wooden hatch with a handle. There was no glass.
The small bed was heated to 37º and fitted with a pale-yellow blanket for warmth. Dieter’s mother tried to close the hatch slowly, but it shot into place. The sensor would quickly respond to Ilse’s weight.
Dieter and his mother walked on.’
In this section, Dieter’s actions show tenderness towards his baby sister and support for his mother. However, the narrative focuses on practicalities. Dieter needs to help his mother take the essential steps to deliver Ilse safely to the hatch. As he doesn’t break down and cry, lose control of the situation, or try to make his mother change her mind, the reader may not feel particularly sympathetic towards him. Since he is complicit in the act of giving up the new-born baby, he may come across as passive and detached. Not unlikeable perhaps, but also not a character for whom the reader feels compassion.
In the original, complete story, however, the following was also revealed to the reader:
‘Someone once told Dieter that a heartbeat can slow down for one unsought second. It takes cover in the memory like a hidden light. When one of these old lights emerges, connections with pain are severed. But when the heart gathers power again, the light retreats. These memories came unbidden. They could not be summoned at will.’
And as Dieter turns away from the hatch:
‘The sensor was responding to Ilse now, to her soft weight. Dieter felt winded, as if his mother had kicked a football into him. He wished the school thugs would appear. With their knuckle-headed sense of justice they would force the hatch off its hinges. Their rough fingers would acquire finesse, unfolding the yellow blanket, easing her out, cupping her head, bringing Ilse into the world again.’
The final scene takes place later that day, during Dieter's oral English lesson. Here is the closing paragraph:
‘“When Ilse was born,’ Dieter was about to tell the English assistant, “I knew I would wait my whole life for something to equal it.”
He did not say it, unsure of the English tenses for the passive, the past, the conditional. And there was probably no point in pinning down time in that way.
While the assistant glanced at the clock, he felt Ilse’s heavy head in the curve of his neck, one vein quivering like a tiny, caught fish with her heartbeat, or with his own.
It was a pinprick of light, like a firefly. There was no time of arrival: the memory waited for the chance to hook up your pain, bring you a second’s peace. And there wasn’t a language for that.’
In these paragraphs, I tried to avoid predictable emotional responses: weeping, pounding his fists on a wall, or begging his mother to change her mind. In fact, I felt that the unavoidability of helping her take the baby to the hatch would ultimately make Dieter a more sympathetic character. Then, as the reader gathers insight into emotions not shared with either his mother or the English assistant, deeper empathy ensues. This is our private time with the main character, a time to connect and to understand.
By the end, we may also imagine that this harrowing experience may result in a life-long, quiet suffering for Dieter, thereby maintaining our emotional attachment beyond the confines of the story. And it is the exclusivity of this awareness which elevates the story and is achieved only when the writer peels back the character's heart and exposes it only to us.