bookshelves: Literature and Psychology

Must We Like Fictional Characters?


During a recent book group discussion of John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, someone said, “I don’t particularly like any of the characters in this book.” I had to admit that I agreed with this assessment, but that truth doesn’t affect my appreciation of the book.

This seemingly casual reference to not liking fictional characters isn’t unusual in book discussions. Last year (2013) saw a protracted kerfuffle in the literary community about likeability when a Publishers Weekly interviewer told Claire Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the narrator of Messud’s recent novel The Woman Upstairs], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud replied:

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. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

In response, The New Yorker “surveyed a group of novelists—Donald Antrim, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Rivka Galchen, and Tessa Hadley” in what it called A Forum on “Likeability”. Here are excerpts from their answers, but you should read the whole piece:

  • Donald Antrim: “ I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”
  • Margaret Atwood: “This does still come up. It is indeed a ridiculous question. The qualities we appreciate in a character are not the same as those we would look for in a college roommate.”
  • Rivka Galchen: Galchen describes her own quest to find books with “female narrators or characters that were … difficult and entrancing… . I think Claire Messud was talking about something substantive and more mysterious than it might first seem; … “The Woman Upstairs” has, as a central project, an investigation into this dim territory.”
  • Jonathan Franzen: “I hate the concept of likeability—it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook.”
  • Tessa Hadley: “What’s disappointing isn’t the reader having that reaction, as if the book were real life. Rather, it’s the timidity of readers’ judgements sometimes—their wanting characters to be “nice,” their punitive reaction if the character is headlong, or extravagant, or selfish—particularly if it’s a female character, and a female reader.” But, Hadley admits, this “likeability” thing isn’t altogether under readers’ control.”

The consensus of The New Yorker panelists is that likeability isn’t necessary in a fictional character.

I agree with the panelists. I don’t need to like fictional characters, but, for fiction to be good, I do need to understand them. My understanding requires authors to provide adequate character development. The human psyche is deliciously messy, and good character development therefore must be complete enough to probe the complex, often ambivalent depths of a character’s full repertoire of motivations. Getting to know characters in this way is, after all, why we read fiction.

I also hear people speak of “caring about”—or not—characters, which is not the same as liking them. If understanding characters is an intellectual function—understanding with the head—caring about characters adds the element of empathy—understanding with the heart.

In Updike’s Rabbit, Run, none of the characters is particularly likable. There’s the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, whose reaction to every obligation of adulthood is to run. There’s Harry’s wife, Janice, whose main resource for mothering is a bottle of liquor. There’s Rev. Eccles, who tries to pretend that his meddling is motivated by care and concern. And there’s Janice’s parents, who raised their daughter to believe her primary purpose in life is to snag a husband. Yet it’s hard not to empathize with all of them. The best part of Harry’s life is behind him, in his high school basketball career; he has no job opportunities and nothing to aspire to. Janice, with a two-year-old and a ripening pregnancy, faces choosing between single parenthood and a loveless marriage. Rev. Eccles wears the collar but doesn’t really believe what he preaches. And Janice’s parents so the only thing they can do: take in their daughter and grandson, rail against the philandering husband, and finally offer him a job at the family’s car dealership.

Rabbit, Run presents a complicated world in which complex characters try to live out the lives that that world makes available to them. I may not like those characters, but I do understand them. And that’s reason enough to appreciate Updike’s achievement.

For more on the topic of character likeability, see Jennifer Weiner’s piece “I Like Likable Characters” in Slate. She finally comes down on the side of “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,” but along the way she includes links to several additional points of view on fictional characterization.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

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