Likeable Characters: Does it Matter?

Unlikeable characters picIn Paula Hawkins Girl on the Train, almost every character falls under the category of unlikeable. Gillian Flynn’s characters in Gone Girl and Dark Places evokes a similar, chronic umbrage that even their worst personality traits and immoral choices cannot compensate for; yet, after the chaos of voluntarily dropping ourselves into these characters’ circumstances along with knowing the well-founded and pitiful reason for these characters being who they are, the vast majority of readers cannot pull themselves away from the all consuming discussion: were the characters likeable?

I was dismissive of this topic at first and never put much emphasis in it. I still consider it a short-sighted way to gauge a book’s merit, and I think it can act as a form of discrimination, especially when people use the scapegoat of not liking  a book because they weren’t able to identify with any of the characters. When did we start treating these characters like celebrity friends?

Our purpose in reading has changed. Although why we read has its own myriad of answers, reading still cultivates a feeling of empathy, but when we remove the likeability from our characters, it seems to affect how we read the text. People usually don’t feel as generous or sympathetic toward a character doing terrible things regardless if people are well informed of the character’s motivations and circumstances, which says a mouthful of what people are willing to spare in terms of compassion.

Then again, reading isn’t just satisfying our own moral compasses and egos but a way to study the spectrum of humanity. As anyone who happens to turn on the morning news or has had their share of hardships, we can be hollow, cruel, and vicious creatures, which can be difficult for many to read. Some days leave you feeling like a hopeless cynic who wants to do nothing but hermit. And while you can gain so much from being exposed to this material, it’s not what a majority of people want to read. As the Guardian writes, people have an “appetite for easy, unthreatening fiction.”

In the last few years, our culture has undergone economic changes. Despite the recession, people are still significantly more well off than they would have been fifty years ago. Finances, health, and well-being have increased, which subsequently, has fostered a belief, attributed much to the new generation, that places an emphasis on self-worth. Millennials want to do work that is fulfilling. They want to know that the work they’re doing is making a difference somehow, but they also want to know that they’re not going to spend every waking hour in an office doing a monotonous job, not after the sobering realization that a perfect education cannot promise anything. People are still seeking employment. Some are working for positions they’re overqualified with salaries below minimum wage. Our healthcare system has problems and isn’t as affordable despite its name. Even though things are improving, several people are still struggling.  There’s a tendency to forgo the challenging books with unlikeable character and prefer characters they can relate to and inspire them. It’s a healthier way to self-medicate. Having a likeable character in a story isn’t necessarily bad in terms of characterization, but as Claire Messud puts it after a reporter blithely asked her about a certain prickly female character in her book, “[People] 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?’”

Our criteria and rhetoric has become heavily biased in terms of how we rate and appreciate characters in books. In a society that already has in place a double standard system, with unlikeable female character tending to be judged more than their male counterparts, our own impartiality limits our exposure and engenders the prolonged problems of not having enough diverse characters.

The other issue stemming from only generating the likeable characters will result in trite material. As Zoe Heller argues, “to insist that the fault always lies with our shortcomings as readers is to attribute to literature an infallibility it does not possess.”  A likeable character is a pleasing person and we’re essentially creating a nice version of Frankenstein’s monster that is an aesthetically, well-behaved, non-ambiguous character. If we seek fault, then it’s part of the travesty of not wanting to find mix-matched parts to assemble.

Whether we like or dislike a character shouldn’t affect our final verdict. It’s actually distracting us from having more meaningful, complicated discussions. This is not to say that you should kill your feelings just yet. They’re a great plateau to jump off from that can lead into the more thought-provoking conversations.

If we simply regard a character based on our overall impression of them, we can easily end up being misinformed and end up misunderstanding the people in our own lives. Characters are, of course, fictional, contrived from the inner creative circuitry of the writer’s mind. If nothing else, we can find more than just entertainment injected into the ink: we can find ourselves, people, strangers, another world, the new, the ugly, secrets, and lies.

Post Blog Post: If you think I’m exaggerating or aren’t taking me seriously about the scrutiny of female characters, just Google: unlikeable characters in books. Then click on ‘Images.’

8 thoughts on “Likeable Characters: Does it Matter?

  1. It also bugs me when people say, “I hated this character” to explain why they didn’t like a book/movie/whatever. It isn’t as though “dark” equals deep, either, it’s that likability is beside the point to whether the characters come to life and serve the overall story. We’ve been watching that HBO show “Treme” about post-Katrina New Orleans and it’s refreshing to see likable characters you root for who are also complex and interesting.

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  2. At the same time, the “I hated this character” argument does kinda make sense to me. You don’t need to befriend the characters, but by reading a book they’re in, the author is asking you to spend your free time hanging out with them, in a way.

    Maybe a better way to think of it is not, “Do I like this character?” but “Do I care about them?” even if that means caring about them getting their what-for because they’re such bastards. Or an anti-hero like Walter White from “Breaking Bad” that’s thrilling to watch because the viewer lives through him vicariously (“What would happen if I broke the rules and just let my id run wild?”). Hmm, dunno if there’s an equivalent female Walter White character (or at least if there’s one that’s a super-popular household name of a character).

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  3. Very good points. But then I think it also raises several other questions like “do I have to like a character to care about them?” What’s it take for us to emphasize with another character? I actually just finished a book that’s relevant to this topic (Marie Lu’s sequel to her Young Elites series called The Rose Society. It’s very much about a protagonist who’s been treated unfairly by the world and seeks to take the kingdom (hereby making the world a better place) and punish those who have wronged her {SPOILER} Along the way though, she does some downright awful things from mercilessly killing people, torturing former friends/family, to betraying her sister who tries to save her from herself. It’s a novel so full of gray area and characters who aren’t at times likable; yet we want them to succeed–and we don’t. In this instance, I find this particular kind of character so interesting to read, but I also know this is not how all of us operate emotionally.

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    • **What’s it take for us to emphasize with another character?**

      That is an excellent question! It probably varies from person to person, yet there are probably some commonalities in things that are both very popular and very critically successful in that they resonate with so many people.

      I’m finding “Bird Box” hard to get into. I find the character likable, yet I don’t really care what happens to her. She just doesn’t come to life for me, all the characterization is like, “She did this, then she did that.” Granted, I’m not that far and I should give it more of a chance. It seems like the kind of book where atmosphere and plot are the name of the game, and I’m more of a character-driven kinda gal, so maybe it’s a matter of personal preference.

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    • It sounds like the Young Elites book might be kind of cathartic in the way that “Breaking Bad” is as far as revenge and whatnot. If you’re really pissed off at someone you might think of doing something awful to them, but then you get over it and stay outta jail. ;o) But it’s like – you can understand the feeling that drives them to awful things and it’s fun to see what happens someone chooses a different path than you would (but might sometimes want to).

      Don’t know if you already read it, but I Googled “likable characters” after reading your post and found this article (the comments are interesting, too):
      http://www.salon.com/2013/08/06/quit_talking_about_likable_characters/

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      • When I was doing the little bit of research, I did come across that article and the Guardian (was pleasantly surprised.) I like how you put “resonate” because I’m sure most of us can relate to a character wanting to to abandon his morality compass for settling a score. Some day I’ll have to watch Breaking Bad. It’s actually one of the many reason I loved Flynn’s character Amy from ‘Gone Girl.’ Maybe the likability factor ties in really with having to identify with our characters or at least with some small aspect of them. It’s very interesting.
        With Bird Box, it’s mostly atmospheric and invents a creepy world, which is beautiful timing. I sort of felt the same about the characters. They’re not very interesting themselves (maybe except for Gary, but I think the idea of him is more interesting than the actual character, which is actually one of the things I talk about in my upcoming review.) Yet I was interested in seeing if they would survive (only because it seemed like no one could and I really didn’t want this book to shred what little optimism I had..?)

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  4. I think I’ve enjoyed books before that were more plot-focused, where the character was just kind of a quick thumbnail sketch in service of the plot (can’t think of any examples). I can deal with minimal characterization, but I think it works better with an omniscient narrator point of view, knowing lots of information about the world that the character wouldn’t. “Bird Box” is told from one person’s point of view, and if you don’t engage with/care about that person…

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    • Actually I think it’s third person point of view, not first person (it’s “She did XYZ,” not “I did XYZ”). But..y’know, very focused on the doings of one character (so far), which is frustrating when the character isn’t very developed.

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