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.’

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Spoilers are contained in this review.

41yZreG2lcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I love it when a book has characters so interesting, so convincing, that for a moment, I have to set the book down and tell myself that this is only a story. It’s easy to forget when everything seems so real yet fantastical.

Gillian Flynn masterfully invents characters eerily authentic, broken, and dysfunctional and leads us down a macabre of events both gripping and sobering. For those idly rolling in the sheets with their new partners or long-standing significant others, Gone Girl can be treated as a cautionary tale of taking your partner for granted and betraying his or her trust. After you’ve taken that time to reevaluate your commitments, Girl is more than  a quick lesson on marriage; it’s a very poignant, honest take on peoples’ relationships, how their quirks and aberrations tie them together better than trying to shoehorn yourself into ideal marriage. With this said, The Dunne are not normal and shouldn’t be considered in any way what a healthy adult relationship looks like. When you have a moment where you’re doubting your relationship, take solace in knowing it could be worse—so thank you, Nick and Amy.

The last thing Nick Dunne expected on his five year wedding anniversary was for his wife Amy to go missing. When the police and town of Missouri launch an investigation, things quickly start to spiral out of Nick’s control and learns he’s the prime suspect in her disappearance. As the story reaches its twist, average, nice guy Nick isn’t who we thought he is nor is Amy.

Girl’s narrative style ostensibly exposes all angles of the story by telling it through the perspective of Nick and Amy. Just when we think we know everything that’s going on, it subverts our expectations with unreliable narrators. Girl best demonstrates misdirection with first-point perspective and is essentially metafictional. From the media’s presence in the story, the narrators are already acutely aware that their actions are being observed; yet, the narratives seem to suggest these characters are persuasively speaking to us and imply how that they’re self-conscious in their actions.

By now Girl’s twist is widely known especially if you’ve seen the film’s adaptation of it. (Spoiler Alert:) Amy is not in fact kidnapped, raped, or dead but on the run to frame her husband for her murder; thereby, charging him with the death penalty. She’s alive and well and deeply disturbed. The entire time, she’s feverishly watching media coverage of her disappearance/murder and making sure everything is falling into place.

The diary entries are a beautiful token of who Amy is—and isn’t. It’s used to undermine our impressions of her but also used to show her fluctuating agency. She describes herself as being a miracle after her mother’s several miscarriages and subsequently perceives herself as important, surviving with no great effort on her part. This, as well as her parents’ book series Amazing Amy, feeds her need for affection. The effects of this, however, create a subterfuge of Amy, her personality changing more often than people change clothes. It’s arguably normal for people to do this, but for Amy, she’s not experimenting for existential reasons; it’s in part because she’s bored and another to manipulate others, whether to have them like her or to punish them for wronging her.

While the media unsurprisingly choose to dissect the psychopathic characteristics of Amy, what I think Girl probes most is the contingency of identity. The novel places an emphasis on the characters’ proximity (New Yorkers to Missouri, M-i-s-e-r-y), spouse (Nice Guy to Cheating Husband/Cool Girl to Psycho Bitch), careers (Writer to Unemployed). These themes are prevalent throughout the novel.

If I have not mentioned this by now, Girl is entertaining, not in the sense that reality shows are all train wrecks we watch to make ourselves feel better, but in the way that it’s written and how the events play out. What I loved most about the book was its characters. Definitely Amy Elliott, by far, receives the most attention, with Vanity Fair proclaiming that she’s “the most disturbing female villain of all time.

Our first impressions of Nick and Amy end up being the polarized opposites: from loyal husband to lazy, cheating scumbag and from doting wife to conniving, narcissistic woman. They’re intentionally frauds, putting on a show for everyone. That’s just who they are at their core, playing their part to feed their avarice egos.

Part of the reason the media and readers narrow in on Amy has to do with two things: her excessive manipulating, toxic personality and her unapologetic, language she exhibits that is quite empowering. She makes us nervous, but she’s charming. She also may be a personification of our dirty laundry. Whether we want to admit it or not, a good chunk of our lives is just for show, represented exaggeratedly. There’s no arguing that Amy Elliott, for her gumption and Spartan disciplinary, is scary, although personally, not as scary if she turned out to be Diary Amy.

Of course, Nick, for all intents and purposes, is just all the right kind of wrong and screw-up that it compliments with his wife’s sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies. The beautiful part is that Flynn depicts these two characters as intellectual equals who are more in tune with their partner than even some healthy relationships. Ironically without each other, they wouldn’t be who they are.

Kind of sort of love, right. . .?