What’s up with needing characters to be likable?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about novelists—particularly female authors—feeling the need to make characters “likable,” and that perhaps one difference between literary and popular or genre fiction is that in the former, readers don’t necessarily expect to like/relate to/want to hang out with a character, whereas in the latter readers react badly if they don’t find a character (particularly a protagonist) likable. Furthermore, for a female author of a female main character, the pressure to create a likable protagonist seems greater.

So what’s wrong with women writing unlikable, complicated fictional people? And why as readers must we be so bent on this intangible, positive quality? I would point to a great many wonderful characters who aren’t so likable but who have achieved a hallowed status in fiction, both classic and contemporary: Holden Caulfield, Don Draper, Sherlock Holmes, Severus Snape, Walter White, every character in Gone Girl, every character in The Great Gatsby…and a great many figures of tragedy in Shakespeare are, at their heart, ridiculously unlikable. In fact, tragic flaws stem from personality failings, many of which are significant enough to make a reader or viewer seriously question the character’s worth. Furthermore, some characters we associate with “breakout” status—the Fonzies, the Michael Kelsos, et al—may elicit comic relief and fan adoration, but think about whether those characters would actually work front and center. Half the reason we love Daryl and Michonne on The Walking Dead is how sparingly and effectively they’re used. Would we really want to see them as the sole protagonist? Main character status for someone flawed, funny, and dangerous is bound to suddenly show their flaws more fully, which will then render them less likable. If Samantha were the lead in Sex and the City, she would be seen in a very negative light by viewers looking to castigate her freewheeling attitude. As one of an ensemble, however, she is funny and permitted her perceived flaws, so long as she doesn’t sully the slightly more sympathetic Carrie too much.

If we commit the literary sin of putting a complicated person front and center in a piece of genre fiction, we are asking audiences to read for character as well as plot, and this is where the discomfort happens. The supposition is that readers of genre fiction read for the story—the plot, the worldbuilding—but that only readers of literary fiction read for character, to explore the nuances of the human condition in all its real, raw agony. But why must it be all or nothing, one or the other? What’s wrong with writing about a social misfit but injecting that character into a piece of genre fiction? If readers are comfortable with a speculative fiction setting, for example, they’re already able to suspend enough disbelief to buy vampires, space exploration, or alternate histories. Why is it then a leap to also wade through an unreliable narrator, a series of extreme personal failings, or other forms of imperfection? Is this supposed preference for relatable characters a new phenomenon? Culturally, we’re eating up stories about zombie apocalypses, dystopian societies, wars between monster-beings, and worlds being brought to their ends by technology and invasion. We seem comfortable with exploring complete destruction of the very world we inhabit. And yet it is apparently too much to bear to explore that landscape alongside an alcoholic, a narcissist, a whiner, a jerk, a cheater, liar, bigot, criminal, or sociopath.

Really?

To me, characters who are perfect or only barely flawed are unrealistic. And because I write speculative fiction, where reality is absent in the elements that drive the story, I feel I must retain a shred of reality in those things unrelated to the fantastical components. Thus, in an urban fantasy novel where telekinesis and witchcraft exist, I create characters who have realistic day jobs, failed relationships, and quirks and failings that flesh them out and make them seem real. I might also add things that make them partially or wholly appealing, but I don’t expect audiences to focus on one or the other of those attributes but instead to take them as a whole. Just like with real life individuals, I suppose I assume some members of the audience will find that person appealing and some won’t, but it won’t necessarily hinder their collective ability to go along for the storytelling ride. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Jesse Pinkman, for example, but I rooted for him to stay alive at the end of Breaking Bad. I would loathe Sherlock Holmes as a real person, but I want him to solve every case. Wanting a fictional character to succeed in overcoming adversity does not mean we advocate their behavior, identity, or the approach they take in solving their problems. It means we are engaged in the storytelling give-and-take between author and reader and allowing ourselves an experience. To be unwilling to participate in that process if we don’t think we’d want to meet the character outside the pages of the book or the confines of the screen or stage is to limit our worldview to only the ideas that confirm our present state of mind. I would argue that fiction is better than that—it doesn’t always give us what we want, but sometimes it gives us what we need.

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Filed under blog, genres, pop culture, television, writing advice

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