Quit talking about likable characters!

The literary conversation is stuck. Readers like real characters. Why can't authors and bloggers accept that?

Published August 6, 2013 10:50PM (EDT)

Kelly Braffet
Kelly Braffet

When I was a senior in high school, somebody told me, with that particularly teenage yay-drama glee at stirring shit up, that Ed Sundersson (not his real name), a guy from my AP English class, didn’t like me. Not being liked was not unfamiliar: The co-captain of the girls’ volleyball team didn’t like me, either (she thought I’d said something mean about her, and I probably had), and neither did my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend (for obvious reasons). As far as I knew, though, I’d never done anything to Ed Sundersson. His current was not my ex, and to the best of my knowledge I’d never said anything about him one way or another. Which might have had something to do with his not liking me, but that’s a realization that took a few decades to arrive.

Meanwhile, back in high school, I wondered what exactly I was supposed to do with this information. Clearly, I was expected to do something: cry, confront him, whatever. But the hard truth was that I really didn’t care if Ed Sundersson liked me, so what I mostly did was mull it over with a sort of vague interest and eventually come to what remains one of the most significant epiphanies of my generally epiphany-free life: I don’t like everyone I meet. There is absolutely no reason to expect everyone I meet to like me.

Which is not to say that I’m unfriendly. While I definitely skew introverted, I’m not misanthropic. I am willing to give pretty much anybody the chance to be interesting. My jerk alert goes off in reaction to zealotry, smugness and pomposity (which might technically be the same as smugness, but which feels different), and I can also admit that I’m capable of discounting a person pretty much permanently if they don’t laugh at my jokes. This is less vanity than social ineptitude: I’m kind of a one-trick pony, conversationally (see aforementioned introversion) and if you don’t laugh at my one-liners then, folks, I got nothing. All of which is to say that it’s genuinely rare for me to meet somebody that I dislike, and often that dislike is malleable. I can find somebody incredibly annoying and then get over it. Alternately, I can like somebody quite a lot until I suddenly realize that they’re annoying; and even then, an annoying person can still say interesting things. Their very annoyingness can be interesting.

So: Given that not everybody likes me and that I do not expect to like everyone, and that those people I do like can gradually become annoying and vice versa, and given that literature is, in theory, a reflection and explanation of the world around us, why the fucking hell do we worry about whether the characters in the books we read are likable or not?

Because let’s be honest: The evidence would seem to suggest that it doesn’t matter. The world loves itself some villains, as long as they’re clearly presented as villains within the context of a world with clearly defined limits of good and evil. I’m thinking specifically of Cersei Lannister from "Song of Ice and Fire" (and if her character eventually does some sort of moral 180, feel free to keep that to yourself, since I haven’t gotten that far yet) or Yabu from James Clavell’s "Shogun" (who leaps to mind despite the fact that I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone else in my adult life who’s actually read that book, because my seventh grade English teacher once spent a long time telling me how evil he was, and how much she loved him). And then of course there are the classic what-an-asshole characters that we love because they’re so brazenly douchy, like Humbert Humbert or the protagonists of the vast majority of John Updike novels. I actually see a similarity in these two groups: Humbert Humbert and Rabbit might not live in Westeros or medieval Japan, but they don’t exactly inhabit the same worlds we do, either. George R. R. Martin’s and James Clavell’s worlds are differentiated by their setting; Nabokov’s and Updike’s are differentiated by the prose describing it, the solidity of the characters’ voices, the weight of their perspective. (This is also, I think, why I personally tend to find these characters unappealing, although I admire the art that went into their creation: I feel the author’s hand too much in them.)

When we talk or write or tweet about unlikable characters, though, we generally don’t seem to be talking about villains. Usually, we’re talking about characters who inhabit a world much like ours, where motivations are just as twisty and tangled as our own. Unlikable characters, to me, are those who do the wrong thing because it’s easier or more fun; or, maybe even to a greater extent, those who have no idea what the right thing is, and have never really stopped to think about it. I’m talking about people who are flawed and dysfunctional and fucked-up and not particularly charming or attractive, but for some reason you love them anyway. Or, at least, I do. These characters are my favorite characters. They’re the ones I want to read about and the ones I want to write about. They’re the ones I have written about, and will probably write about again, and they’re the ones that are consistently saddled with the charge of being unlikable.

For example, my second novel was about a mother and a daughter. During the publication process, at pretty much every step, somebody pointed out that the daughter was not particularly likable. This was true: She made bad decisions, and wasn’t a very good friend, and at one point she abandoned a cat. The general consensus around the agent-writer-editor round-table was that the daughter’s unlikability was balanced by her mother, who was deemed completely likable, if occasionally a little silly. When I was promoting the book, though, I met with a book club full of nice middle-class ladies around my mother’s age who quickly made it clear that they didn’t like either the daughter or the mother, and for much simpler reasons than the round-table had ever discussed: The daughter was a bad daughter. The mother was a bad mother. They had gone months without even calling each other. What kind of people were these?

The answer: They were damaged, and flawed, and they were limping along anyway. To me, that was the point of the book. It didn’t bother me that the book club women hadn’t found my women likable any more than it had bothered me that Ed Sundersson from AP English hadn’t found me likable. Once again, I found it more interesting than wounding. Also, the book group had a lot to say about that story, about mothers and daughters and estrangement, and it certainly didn’t seem as if disliking the two main characters had in any way dampened their engagement with my book. And, as I said, these were nice middle-class ladies around my mother’s age, who are much touted in the publishing world as being the Only Demographic Who Actually Reads Anymore Anyway.

All of this makes me wonder why we writers and publishers, etc., get so worked up about the danger of having an unlikable character. Every time a book with a rampantly unlikable character achieves a modest degree of prominence – Marcy Dermansky’s "Bad Marie," for instance, or Alyssa Nutting’s "Tampa" – there’s a flurry of blog postings and essays (like this one!) in defense of unlikable characters. It shouldn’t matter, we cry! It doesn’t matter! Let’s quit making this matter! And yet, when I hand a just-completed manuscript to one of my early readers (generally writers themselves) the question of likability inevitably pops back up. One of the early readers of my third novel told me that I might have trouble publishing the book, because “people” were going to find the main characters unlikable. Another told me that I needed to tread carefully, because “people” would think that my protagonist was an ass. “I know he’s not,” that reader was quick to reassure me, but “people” might feel differently.

This kind of talk frustrates me, writers, because “people” are not doing this to us. We’re doing it to ourselves. By “people,” you mean readers, and we are all readers, every last stinking one of us. We were readers long before we ever became writers, long before we thought about things like tension-building and character development. Yes: The people in my books – in many books – are often unlikable. They make bad decisions, and are not always very good friends (although at least nobody abandons a cat this time). But, as readers, do we want to read about people who are otherwise? Do we want to read about people who are always charming, and always noble, and always humble?

Enter Mary Sue, a concept that started in the online fan-fic world but is gradually entering mainstream consciousness. A quick Internet search will give you a much wider range of commentary on Mary Sue than I could ever possibly deliver (as well as a hit on the excellent girl-geek pop-culture website of the same name), but here’s the crux of it: The Mary Sue is the author’s wish-fulfillment stand-in. When, as a 10-year-old, I imagined elaborate "Star Trek" plots hinging around a quick-thinking, smart and universally beloved character of my own creation – let’s call her Smelly, or perhaps T’Smelly, since if I remember correctly she was half-Romulan – that character was my Mary Sue. Stephanie Meyer’s Bella Swan, from the "Twilight" saga, is the most sterling Mary Sue of them all: sassy enough to be interesting but not enough to be acerbic, and possessed of that reassuring everybody-knows-it-but-her prettiness that’s so coveted by adolescent girls clinging desperately to the hope that they, too, are prettier they think they are. Mary Sue is amazing: She’s me, she’s you, she’s your best friend, she’s everybody.

That Internet search I mentioned will reveal a great deal of back-and-forth about whether or not the term “Mary Sue” is pejorative. The phrase is colored with dismissive contempt; even used lovingly, it comes across as a caveat. So-and-so is a bit of a Mary Sue, bloggers and Goodreads reviewers will say, but you’ll cheer for her anyway. Mary Sues are criticized for being too likable: They lack failings (because the perfect versions of ourselves have none) and everybody loves them (because what’s not to love). In certain contexts, there’s nothing wrong with that. Millions of teenage girls love Bella Swan because they can put her on like a coat, slipping into her skin as if it’s theirs. I loved my little half-Romulan T’Smelly because she could save the Enterprise without even trying, and I couldn’t make it through a day of fifth grade without bursting into tears. We – some of us, anyway – love Mary Sue. We need her. But we don’t necessarily respect her. She doesn’t feel real.

Obviously, there’s a lot of literary ground to cover between Humbert Humbert and Bella Swan, but for me, that’s what it comes down to: In my head, the people I write about seem real. They’re conflicted and damaged and they try and they fail; they make bad decisions and they aren’t good friends. What I want, in a perfect world, is for people to read my books and think, I know these people, these people are like me, I see why that character did that. Like the nice middle-class ladies around my mom’s age who didn’t like either of my protagonists but were still interested and engaged in their misadventures, I would like to think that readers can be absorbed in the story of somebody they wouldn’t necessarily want as a roommate. The people I’ve known who love "Lolita" say things like, “Humbert Humbert is so awful, he’s awesome,” and I think what they mean by that is that he’s an awesome achievement, because he’s so very, very awful – he’s a pedophile, for god’s sake – and yet Nabokov still makes you care about him. Likable does not equal good; unlikable does not equal bad.

We, as writers, need to stop making ourselves gun-shy about our characters’ likability. There is less of a gulf between ourselves and our readers than we are occasionally tempted to think. Yes, there will always be characters that some readers just don’t want to read about, but I think most readers can experience a character who is neither a Mary Sue nor a Humbert Humbert – someone who makes bad decisions, and is a bad friend, and doesn’t make adequate arrangements for the care of their companion animals before leaving town – and still care about their story: how they got there, how they’ll get out. Readers see themselves and the world around them in these characters, just like we do – because we are readers – and the very notion that “people” will reject a book because they don’t “like” the characters is condescending and dismissive. The world of books and the people who love them is bigger and wider and better than that, and there is room there for Humbert Humbert, and Bella Swan, and T’Smelly. We can stop worrying. Really: we can.

By the way: Shortly after the whole Ed Sundersson-doesn’t-like-you drama, I went to a party, and Ed was there. I walked in the door and he jumped to his feet and said, “Kelly! It’s not true! I like you!” His expression was oddly grim for such a positive pronouncement, though. I didn’t believe him, and I still didn’t care all that much. But I smiled, and said, “Hey, Ed, I like you, too.”

I’m pretty sure we never spoke again.

By Kelly Braffet

Kelly Braffet is the author of the new novel "Save Yourself." Her earlier novels include "Josie and Jack" and "Last Seen Leaving"

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