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/