Likeable Characters

Do characters have to be likeable? Is there more pressure on female characters to be likeable, and more pressure on female writers to write likeable characters? Is this an issue of genre, of high and low culture, of literature versus popular fiction?

In an interview about her new book, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud was asked about the fact that her female protagonist is not very likeable. Here’s her response:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. 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?

Messud got a lot of attention for this answer, mostly positive. It’s a pretty appealing and articulate denunciation of a double standard, a nice statement of what’s important in a character and what’s not.

Jennifer Weiner responded to Messud’s prickly answer with an article of her own called “I Like Likeable Characters.” Now, Weiner has plenty of feminist cred in my book for her involvement in the annual VIDA Count, which keeps tabs on how many women vs. men are published and reviewed in the country’s best literary magazines, and I respect her for that. Here’s her main point:

What bothers me about this latest flare-up is that it feels like just one more way for literary women writers to dismiss commercially successful women writers. … Calling a novel’s characters the L-word doesn’t just imply that the author in question is writing like a girl; it hints that she is writing like the wrong kind of girl—a dumb, popular, easy girl.

So on the one hand, we have women writers who are insisting—repeatedly, at top volume—that their books are real writing, “serious literary endeavors,” and holding up their unlikable characters as evidence. On the other hand, we have writers being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales.

I think for the most part Weiner is reacting against the percieved elitism in Messud’s remarks. Weiner is someone who seems to have borne the brunt of a lot of literary snobbishness, so I think her sensitivity is somewhat understandable. Weiner has some criticisms of Messud’s character and writing that go far beyond the issue of likeability; I’ve added the book to my reading list so hopefully I’ll be able to weigh in someday on the validity of those criticisms. It may be somewhat arrogant of Messud to implicitly compare her character to those of Nabokov and Shakespeare, but I do think she had a good point in calling the interviewer out. I think she’s right that a male writer would not have been asked this question, and a female writer might not have been asked this question about a male character. For example, Hilary Mantel probably hasn’t been asked about whether she considers Thomas Cromwell to be likeable.

Women are socialized to be likeable above all else: the best part of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was her exposition of this expectation and her strategies for dealing with it. I think it’s only reasonable to observe that this pressure to people-please translates into literature and to the way we read female characters. We expect female characters to conform to sexist ideas of what a woman should be, and are surprised and put off when they don’t. It’s easy to see why Messud got so much applause for pointing out this reality. She put into words what we’ve all been thinking and experiencing. Perhaps some women readers are socialized by schools and book clubs to look for and enjoy characters who are like them. Books with cupcakes on the covers seem to have inoffensive, docile protagonists who generally conform to gender norms. However, just because a character conforms to gender norms and has a positive attitude, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not “alive.” Weiner gives tons of counterexamples herself, of interesting, likeable characters who would make great friends, roommates or coworkers, from high literature and popular novels. To her stellar list I’d like to add Elizabeth Bennet (“I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know”), Hermione Granger, and Sookie Stackhouse.

I think a character’s likeability is not an important issue. An interesting character may be likeable or not, and to me being interesting is more important than being likeable. That’s true for male and female characters, from male and female writers, as far as I’m concerned. I think this is the same thing that Messud means when she asks “Is this character alive?” I think this is also the same thing that Weiner means when she says, “Ideally, our shelves, and even individual books, should contain the rainbow. There should be room for everyone: for the lovable and the despicable, for Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter, for Bridget Jones and even the poor, scorned Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” These two writers are both feminists and I don’t think they actually disagree on all that much.  I believe Weiner when she says that in popular genre fiction there is pressure to write relatable, likeable characters that shallow readers can imagine sharing a coffee with. I also believe that sometimes writers trying to be “literary” might begin by trying to be edgy and provocative, and one shortcut might be an anti-hero character who would not be very good real-life company. However, I’m not quite sure I believe Weiner when she says that a novel must be full of unlikeable people in order to be considered literary today.

There is more to being a complete human being than being likeable, and that goes for characters as well as for people. Messud was right to point that out. I think I lean toward her side of this debate. Weiner has some valid objections about genre divisions and the way they encourage women writers to gang up on each other, but for me they don’t undermine Messud’s larger statement about our expectations of women, women writers and women characters.


17 thoughts on “Likeable Characters

  1. Good observation on how society’s expectations leak into literature. After all, writers want to make a living. If, in order to do so, characters must be tweaked to make them more likeable, is that a sin?
    I don’t know.
    The ideal solution would be to bring to life a character with such complexity and depth and on the surface they are likeable, but underneath they are not. Skin deep they are wonderful people, but poke around a little and you see the person’s true motivations for coming off as wonderful. You see such characters in Jane Austen’s books. Society forces people to appear nice and likeable, but they come off that way only because they must.
    You are correct though. There is more of an expectation for female characters to come off as likeable.

    • Thanks for your nuanced response and for re-blogging my post! I like your solution (Emma Wodehouse is the perfect example), but I don’t think it’s the only one. The converse of what you describe might be an anti-hero, someone who appears abhorent at first, but who has complex motivations and maybe even a sense of style that ultimately win over the reader. There seem to be far more male anti-heroes like this in literature and pop culture. Some of the writers and characters cited by Messud are classic examples, and all are male (with the exception of Munro, who she throws in as a bit of an afterthought). It would be great if female characters had the ‘permission’ of audiences (publishers, critics, and normal book-club-type readers) to display complexity in this particular way, and if female writers had ‘permission’ to create characters like this. Messud seems to have taken the tactic of “act first, ask permission later.” That makes me interested in reading her novel.

  2. Reblogged this on Christopher Lee Deards and commented:
    This post made me think about how expectations of women in our society bleed over into the literature we write.
    Also, I wonder if I could write a story with a strong female lead while not conforming to an ingrained sense of what makes a female character likeable?

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  4. I think that women as a whole have less tolerance for imperfect female characters than they do imperfect male characters. I’ve seen authors get slammed in reviews for female protagonists that are too stupid, too naive, too rash, too selfish, too self-absorbed, etc etc.While part of this may be the quality of the writing and not enough explanation of the character’s motives, I think a large part of it is fear that somehow imperfect female protagonists somehow undermine women in general. It’s no secret that women are far more critical of members of our own gender than we are of men and some of that bleeds over onto our preference for protagonists.

    • I think you’re on to something here. Members of any minority or discriminated-against group are often very critical of each other, especially of the few who get to have a bit of attention or power. They want all public representations of their group to be positive because they know that negative representations will become fuel for stereotypes that will damage all of them.

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  6. Here’s an interesting article comparing Sex and the City to the big cable dramas with male antiheroes for leads, claiming that Carrie Bradshaw was TV’s first female antihero.
    Here’s a good quote:
    “Before “Sex and the City,” the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception.) They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!””

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  8. The Weiner vs. Messud feud is not over. Here’s a New Yorker feature on Weiner. It does a good job of pointing out the self-promotion aspect of Weiner’s activism, but I think it’s fair about it.

    And here’s a Slate article on the likeability spectrum. It makes an important point: trying too hard to be likeable means being bland and boring, and characters that are a little ‘prickly’ (as we called it in grad school) might actually be more interesting and likeable.

  9. People just can’t stop talking about likeability.

    Kirsten Gillibrand says wanting to be likeable is part of a woman’s “nature.” Katy Waldman does a good job taking that idea down for Slate:

    And the lady behind TV’s Nashville thinks the whole conversation is ridiculous.

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