In 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.’