Likable Unlikable

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A great article came out last year called “Social Contracts and the Cult of Likability” (link at the bottom), about readers who believe they have to like every trait and support every decision of a character in order to find a book “good.” What critics argue is that such a factor is totally irrelevant, that likability is too subjective, and even that likable characters are essentially flat.

I had a mixed response. On the one hand I agree that flawed, unpleasant, even downright horrible characters can be wonderfully compelling. All their cracks and fissures and festering pustules of imperfection can lead to fascinating analyses, or even camaraderie, if they bear flaws I have myself. I champion the characters that surprise and challenge, and it’s a laudable feat when someone can put me in the head of a villain and make me actually want to be there, not just run screaming. Though sometimes a good scream is nice too. Helps digestion, I’ve heard.

On the other hand though, there are lots of times I’ve enjoyed a book precisely because I found a character so endearing or funny that I can’t help wanting to trot alongside them from page one to the end. And then there are characters with something deeply resonant about them – an understanding between character and reader, a sense of “I know” and “Me too” and “YES, finally, someone gets it.” Those can be incredibly moving experiences. Likability does not inherently mean flat; there are all sorts of riches and complexities to be found in a likable character if the author’s done a good job.

The thing is, flaws or villainy must be redeeming in one form or another. That redemption can come in the form of entertainment: the jerk who makes you laugh. It can be sympathy: the evil sorceress who you forgive because of what she’s endured. It can be fascination: you’d never want to meet this person in a dark alley, but you wouldn’t mind spying on them from a safe distance.

Unlikability takes many forms too. If I find a character dull, I will dislike them. Insufferably whiny: dislike. Arrogant and show-offy (unless they’re funny about it): dislike. Just plain mean for no good reason: dislike. If they do nothing in the story but stop the fun of others, constantly raining on parades and glowering at jokes: mega-dislike. And this dislike is important, because if I can’t stand to be around this character, what’s keeping me in the story?

So really, there is no black and white here. There is no winner’s side and loser’s side in the match of likable vs unlikable. But the most important thing, no matter the character, is that they’re vivid. My favorite quote in the article expresses it like this:

We 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?”

ALIVE. Mmm. Yes.

Tell me, what makes you like or dislike a character? What would make you want to stick with a character who you personally weren’t fond of?

Credit: “Social Contracts and the Cult of Likability” by Nathan Pensky. http://electricliterature.com/social-contracts-and-the-cult-of-likability/

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7 thoughts on “Likable Unlikable

  1. Very thoughtful. Jennifer Weiner had an interesting piece on Slate a couple years ago, “I Like Likable Characters,” responding to Claire Messud’s condemnation of the same; that was the first time I realized this was an issue. I like your approach of judging each character on his or her own terms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will have to look up both those articles, they sound very interesting. Likability’s a hard thing, because people have such subjective reasons for liking or disliking someone. And those feelings can be really swaying for the reader, despite what the author was going for. For instance, I have a snarky character who I like, because I like snark, but someone else might find her annoying. So can any character be universally “likable?” It’s not an objective quality like short or tall or quiet or loud. Likability relies on the reader.

      Like

  2. Excellent post. It makes me think of A Song of Ice and Fire, in which very few characters are actually likable (at least the ones that live), and yet it’s very hard to put down. It’s probably even more applicable to the Game of Thrones TV show. It also makes me think of my current (first) novel and I wonder if my protagonists are “alive” enough. Thank you for making me think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • GoT is a great example! I haven’t read the books but I’ve seen the show. A show that always pops into my mind regarding this topic is House. Dr. House is a terrible person and I wouldn’t be able to stand him in real life, but he’s such a vivid, fascinating character. And his terribleness is redeemed because he’s so funny about it. It’s all in the delivery.

      Liked by 1 person

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