At a book group gathering a few months back a man opened the discussion with the comment, “I didn’t like this book because I just couldn’t like any of the characters.” I don’t even remember what that month’s book was because my mind took off with that comment. That was certainly not the first time I’d heard it in a book group. And if you frequent any book sites on the internet, you’ll find some variation of it all over the place.
I’ve never understood this comment. Before I heard it for the first time, the consideration of whether I liked or disliked a literary character had never even crossed my mind. To like a book, I don’t need to like its characters. But I do need to understand them.
Since the issue of the likability of fictional characters comes up periodically in book-discussion circles, among both readers and writers, let’s take a look of what some people have had to say about it. Then I’ll give you my take on this topic.
Back in 2010 Laura Miller, in a discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, wrote in Salon:
All of this raises a question I’ve been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen’s (and many other authors’) characters, which is that they are “unlikable.” I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, said in a 2013 interview with Publishers Weekly:
As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”
She says that reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in high school taught her that fiction can express negative emotions, can say “unsayable things.” But at that time all the books she loved that did this were by and about men: “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.”
And when the interviewer asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in The Woman Upstairs], would you?” Messud answered, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Then she added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”
In response, author Jennifer Weiner amped up the discussion in I Like Likable Characters for Slate when she chose to focus on the dichotomy between “chick lit”—relatable women characters written by women writers for women readers—and “literary novels” (Weiner’s term). She suggests Messud is something of a snob in her insistence that she writes books on the serious side of the popular/literary dichotomy. Weiner takes this distinction seriously:
I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously.
And she has a solution for the whole issue:
Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?
Kelly Braffet, author of Save Yourself and other novels, brings a refreshing sense of insight to the issue in Quit talking about likable characters!. She says she learned in high school that she doesn’t like everyone she meets and that she doesn’t expect everyone to like her. She also admits that even people she likes can become annoying, but “even then, an annoying person can still say interesting things. Their very annoyingness can be interesting.”
Braffet defines unlikable characters this way:
Unlikable characters, to me, are those who do the wrong thing because it’s easier or more fun; or, maybe even to a greater extent, those who have no idea what the right thing is, and have never really stopped to think about it.
Novelist Edan Lepucki, author of California, writes in I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction, “As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting.” Also:
what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above.
Koa Beck took to the pages of The Atlantic in Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable (December 2015) to celebrate that year’s crop of “novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff.”
In these books—a list that includes Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train—says Beck:
These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures. Perhaps most refreshingly, these novels aren’t so much heralding a new age of female-centric literature as they’re building on a much older English-language tradition of works about complex women.
Perhaps the tendency to designate characters as either likable or unlikable has come from our human tendency to dichotomize, to see things and people in terms of either/or. We want them to be either good or bad, likable or unlikable, not a messy mixture of both good and bad traits. We categorize people this way because it’s easy. Once we decide which side of an “either/or” mind-set individuals fall on, we no longer have to make the effort to get to know them better.
But the beauty of reading fiction is that it can help us overcome this tendency to categorize people by introducing us to complex characters who, like us, are partly likable and partly unlikable. In fiction we get to meet way more people than we meet in real life. In fiction, we become acquainted with all kinds of people, many of whom we probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life. We get to know these characters and then walk away from them after we reach the bottom of the final page. One of the reasons why I read fiction is to learn about human nature. By getting to know other people, both real and fictional, I learn more about myself.
In fiction, we can safely associate with people we don’t necessarily like. Reading fiction allows us to experience people and situations we’d never encounter in our everyday lives. This is why I don’t need to like fictional characters.
But I do need to understand them. I judge a novel by the strength of its characterization, by how well the author has developed complex, believable characters from whose choices, decisions, and actions I can learn. When I read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, I didn’t think about how unlikable the main character, Nora, is. I thought about how her life has made her desperate for human relationship, for friendship. Yes, I cringed at some of the things she did and the thoughts she expressed, but I understood her thoughts and actions. The Woman Upstairs is a good novel not because I like Nora, but because I understand how, in the context of her life, she does what she does.
And characters like Nora, who share the deliciously messy stew of both good and bad tendencies and emotions that comprise the human psyche, are not only the best teachers of human nature. They are also the most interesting characters to read about. The unreliable narrators, the ordinary people forced to confront extraordinary circumstances—these are the characters who keep me turning the pages.
Maybe this is why I like mysteries so much, because they probe the darker recesses of the human psyche. A good mystery makes us understand—certainly not like or even condone, but understand—why people do what they do. Often mysteries take us inside the heads of both a criminal and an investigator. Even if we’re able to figure out whodunit before the end, watching the investigation is as satisfying as watching the crime.
I’ve learned that, when I start a new novel, I should be careful not to pass judgment on the characters too early. I need to give the author time to turn each character in the light of experience so that I can see the reflections off all the character’s facets. If the author is very good at the writing craft, I may be meeting some new fictional characters who have something to teach me. In that case, the question of whether I like or dislike the characters evaporates.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Also published on Medium.