Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, discuss the likeability of characters in novels.1
Here’s what I have noticed:2
I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason,3 the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.4
V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.
VI: “Likeable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.5
I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?
I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep.6 But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.7
Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.
What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page.8 Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?
For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.
As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.
As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.9
In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.
Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.
I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.
On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.
I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Go read all these articles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.
I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:
I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.
Jenny Thurman added:
There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.
I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.
Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.
Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.
The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.
If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.
V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?
See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.
I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters.10 They would probably kill me. I want to live.
So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.
Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.
VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.
What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.
- This post was inspired by Twitter discussions of Roxane Gay’s article on the subject with folks like Malinda Lo. But I have talked about these issues over the years with too many YA writers to name. Some of whom, like Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, have written very thoughtfully on the subject. [↩]
- As noted it’s not just me noticing it. Here’s Seanan McGuire on the same subject. [↩]
- Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is no mystery. The answer is: because sexism. [↩]
- Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about. [↩]
- It seems to be another the Commonwealth spells it one way and the USA the other thing. However, there also seems to be a lot variation within all those countries. Thank you Grammarist. [↩]
- Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere. [↩]
- There are many other writers this is true of. But Highsmith is my favourite example. [↩]
- Not literally. That would be terrifying. [↩]
- I know, right? What is wrong with them?! [↩]
- Except for the lovers from her one and only upbeat book with a happy ending: Price of Salt aka Carol. [↩]
I’m with you. Sometimes I enjoy reading murder mysteries from the thirties because there are no children. Sometimes I enjoy reading Gillian Flynn because everyone is horrible. Sometimes I like books where everyone is coupled off at the end. But not even once have I chosen a book to read because the heroine is likeable.
Kaethe: because there are no children
Okay, that intrigues me. Do you mean because children are never the victims and you find that upsetting?
The other thing about the whole likeability thing is how does anyone know whether they’re going to like a character until they’ve read the book? So, yes, I’ve never picked a book up because of the likeable characters either.
For me there is one other factor when reading the book, which is utterly subjective but tangentially related to likeability (or how I judge it when reading). I do find myself coming back to books from authors whose previous books felt like the author liked the characters (especially the characters I liked). And of course I can’t actually know whether my assessment of that is true or not, but that’s something (well, one of the many things) that draws me to, say, fiction by Zadie Smith or Terry Pratchett or Sherman Alexie.
And unlikeable characters are perfectly fine, as long as I’m not being encouraged (unsuccessfully) to like them. (I can’t think of an example right this second, but there are some. There’s something of that in “Devil Wears Prada” where I feel like there is some positivity to Miranda, who is a compelling character and the narrative agrees with me, but otoh, I find both the protagonist and her boyfriend quite annoying, and the book seems not to intend me to).
On the other hand, I would typically feel disappointed if it feels as though the book is trying to make me like characters I dislike, and dislike characters I like. That’s what happens in in George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” later books for me. Why does the narrative keep pushing Tyrion and Jaime at me? I have no sympathy left for those two. Why is there no sympathy for Cersei? Why is the book telling me to dislike her?
So I guess I want to have my judgment of characters reaffirmed rather than contradicted by the story. And it’s not so much that I want them (characters I like) to necessarily win, but I don’t want them to be presented as “obviously not sympathetic” when I for some reason find them anything but.
(And yes, I see that it’s impossible to accommodate everyone this way, because people will have largely different responses to who is and is not likeable and therefore, impossible to make everyone happy. But that is a “likeability” issue that influences my book choices.)
I find that likeability often comes up in the editing process, after I’ve finished a draft and sent it off to a publisher. Affairs tend to get stripped away, rough edges smoothed over, in the interests of making the female protagonist more likeable. It’s also a subtle voice I hear in my own head, too, however–perhaps because I grew up in the South, where just about everything can be forgiven if you are “nice.”
leseparatist: Yes, as I said in the post above if I don’t care about the characters I can’t write about them.
Michelle: That is fascinating. So you’re saying that in your writing you only worry about the likeability of your female characters because they get judged much more harshly?
The dreaded “likable character” debate has been going on for quite a long time and is especially discriminatory towards women authors. I firmly believe that it actually kills the longevity and reception of marvelous books. Consider, for example, Diane Johnson’s extraordinary novel, THE SHADOW KNOWS. It may have attracted the notice of Stanley Kubrick, but nobody wishes to remember this gripping novel almost forty years after its publication — because Johnson is better known for “likable” books like LE MARIAGE and LE DIVORCE. (It was actually reissued here recently in the States with a cover burgeoning with chalky Impressionist lines, as if it the story of a divorced mother being stalked was a jocose romp.) One source of this reception may very well be a December 22, 1974 notice in the New York Times by one Karyl Roosevelt: “That may be impressive, but it’s difficult to like or admire this woman. I think her lover saw his chance and took it. All of this grimy wallowing is not nice; it’s tiresome and inevitably, as with some unexplained weakness of character that can’t be changed, we grow impatient and simply don’t want to deal with it anymore.” It is up to all of us to hold up and defend quality fiction — whatever its provenance, genre, or source — and delineate that these “unlikable” stories are not tiresome or repetitive, but revealing of the human condition in ways that safer titles are not.
Edward Champion: Now, there’s a review that makes me want to read the book. Desperately. I didn’t know that book but now I must have it.
It is up to all of us to hold up and defend quality fiction — whatever its provenance, genre, or source — and delineate that these “unlikable” stories are not tiresome or repetitive, but revealing of the human condition in ways that safer titles are not.
I am with you a hundred per cent until the end of that sentence “revealing of the human condition in ways that safer titles are not”.
Seems to me there are two ways in which (mostly) women’s writing gets dismissed: the first is the one you’ve discussed here: because their work is unladylike. Unlikeable. Unwomanly. Not nice. The second is because their work is too nice, too ladylike, too womanly, too nice, too small in focus. You know all the ways in which Jane Austen gets inaccurately dismissed. Those works are also frequently dismissed as “safe”. The very word makes me itch.
I believe one source of the problem is Hollywood and similar moviemaking places. Various series in YA that have become megahits have allowed their authors to do well, financially; when the studios come calling to obtain movie rights, however, those authors and their agents can count on large amounts of money changing hands. In the case of some very well represented authors, the movie deals resulted in residuals that continue to pour money into their accounts faster than can be easily spent.
And that’s the problem. Hopeful YA writers are writing with an eye towards future movie deals, thus believing that “likeable” characters sell more tickets at the box office. Unfortunately this is severely limiting to the storytelling process, resulting in agents and editors reading MS after MS that is filled with “likeable” characters and no story.
Derek Ott: Hopeful YA writers are writing with an eye towards future movie deals, thus believing that “likeable” characters sell more tickets at the box office.
Obviously, I don’t know all YA writers or all wannabe YA writers, however, I know many, and none of them write with an eye towards a movie deal. There’s no point. The odds are so against you that wasting months and often years of your time writing a book aimed at getting a Hollywood deal is not going to get you anywhere.
That is, of course, not the same thing as hoping for a Hollywood deal. I’m sure more of us hope that. I have many daydreams about my novels being turned into fabulous tv series. But I’ve never written a single one of them with that in mind.
Very well-said, Ed.
What I’m referring to, Justine, is a market trend toward expecting likable protagonists in novels by women authors (which, by the way, are almost always automatically labeled “women’s fiction,” simply because of the author’s gender.) I don’t intentionally set out to write unlikeable characters or likable ones. I set out to write realistic characters, female and male, and to explore with some sense of compassion why they do they things they do.
Claire Messud touched on this subject in a PW interview for The Woman Upstairs, although she was a bit unfair to other women writers when she claimed that “the voice of an angry woman” is missing from literature:
“Anyway, these books I love, they’re all books by men—every last one of them. Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.”
This claim, which doesn’t really bear up under scrutiny, seemed to play into a larger gender bias–which was unfortunate coming from a woman writer. The funny thing is that the interviewer asks this weird question, saying that she wouldn’t want to be friends with the main character, and Messud goes off on her, replying, justifiably if not amicably ( or not as amicably as women writers are expected to be), that wanting to be friends with a character has nothing to do with it:
Michelle R.: Yes, there are many excellent quotes from Messud in that interview, which is why I quoted her extensively in the post above as well as linking to the whole interview.