Anyone can see from reading reviews at Amazon and Goodreads that there is a swathe of the reading and book-buying public who do not like to read books with unlikeable characters. If they’re going to spend 300-600 pages with someone they want that someone to be the kind of character they’d happily invite over for a cup of tea. Their reasons for reading: To enjoy the experience.
Another type of reader doesn’t have this requirement. This kind of reader can sound a bit more hi-falutin because, after all, you can’t read a lot of the classics if you start with the requirements that your characters have to be likeable.
Here’s a brainstorm of what I personally ‘like’ in a character:
James Wood makes clear his own position, criticizing the type of reviewer who seems to think that:
Artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of–or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.
— How Fiction Works
This definitely has me thinking about picturebooks, and how certain readers require that any wrongdoing in a picturebook must be punished, lest children think that it’s okay to steal hats, or whatever.
IN WHICH LIKEABILITY ABUTS FEMINISM
A few years after James Wood published How Fiction Works, novelist Claire Messud was asked by a journalist to comment on why the main (female) character in her novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t very likeable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that her response to Publishers Weekly sounded so well-thought through it was almost prepared; after all, James Wood and Claire Messud are married. I think they may have discussed this issue at some point, with Messud adding to the conversation that female characters are judged more harshly for being unlikeable, as are women in real life.
Lena Dunham spoke on the issue of likeability after criticisms that her characters in Girls are unlikeable:
I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.
from Lena Dunham, quoted here.
If we take the enduring success of books such as Lolita, it’s clear that in literary works — the kind that take years or decades to write — the kind that will get reviewed in major publications, you don’t have to write likeable main characters and you may still make your mark.
If you are a self-published author on Amazon, however, the nature of user reviews suggest that likeable main characters sell more copies.
And if you aspire to be a popular author for children, that likeable hero rule is even tighter… for better or for worse. In fact, even in popular Hollywood films heroes have to have a ‘moral weakness’. In other words, they have to be treating other people badly in some way (too tied to their job to spend time with family etc). But this does not seem to be a rule in children’s books, especially those for young readers. Heroes for children only need a ‘psychological weakness’ (shyness, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths, trouble handing in homework, etc.)
How To Write A Likeable Hero
We identify most strongly with characters we feel sorry for, worry about, or like and admire.
— Michael Hauge
It’s not actually that hard. There is even a checklist. This is from David Freeman, John Truby, Robert McKee and Howard Suber: Continue reading