When did likeable become a dirty word?

Every where I look ‘likeable’ is being run down. We seem obsessed not with the right for a character to be who they are, however seemingly imperfect and human that might be, but with actively constructing the most repulsive and unappealing human possible. In fact, I question if it is possible. After all some of the most reprehensible men in history have been described as charming. Even when we redeem them, it feels forced, as if they are sending a nicely edited political party broadcast – Shitheads are people too..

The argument constantly returns to the notion that likeability is a condition of publication, a compromise foisted on the artiste by the bottom dollar guys. You know the ones, they paint the pink in babies cheeks and bid for each others grandmas on ebay (I don’t want to know what they do with them..) Likeability has become synonymous with selling out. Like the reviewers on amazon who are so hasty to assure us its not that they need likeable characters, as long as they are interesting, complex, engaging, before returning to the truth that belies their words.. but when these characters are just all so utterly unlikeable..

It’s just not cool to be likeable.

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Comedy as my favourite comedian once pointed out (in an off the cuff remark, he likely doesn’t remember, but it stuck with me) often plays too heavily on hate. Rants about life’s little annoyances, ridiculing those we find odd, bashing public figures, there is something oddly alluring about the unlikeable. A quick scan of twitter or facebook shows we spend far more time complaining about what we don’t like than focusing on what we do.

Part of the appeal might lie in the fact that it is easier. This writer sees it as a matter of agency:

The unlikable character is a one-man plot-building machine, and I wholeheartedly encourage you all to try it at least once.

As does this one

We need bad characters because plots are so often advanced by people doing bad things

I’m not sure he’s wrong, in terms of what we read, I’m damn sure he is wrong in terms of what it is possible to write. Yet again and again it is the less than angelic characters who do seem to create ‘problems’ – what we call plot. Even taking the notion of true evil (blow the world up Loki style) out of the equation and looking at a show like Sex and the City, we see this morality and alignment in action. The sexually amoral and ravenous Samantha creates situations – from getting down and dirty with the Fed-Ex guy, expecting a little extra from the massage guy, getting naked pictures of herself taken – situations that we know will end up with her red faced, humiliated and probably thrown out of somewhere. Yet without her arrogance, vanity and promiscuity, presumably, the writers felt the constant whine of ‘does he love me/is he the one?’ created by the more virtuous characters clearly wasn’t enough to hold our attention as every episode was split between these threads. The real question is, was our attention negative and judgemental or did we revel in her adventures?

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We’ve aligned agency with the ability to create conflict. In itself something we seem to be identifying as a negative trait. Intriguing in the current climate of twitter-warriors. Theseus, the apparent inspiration behind Katniss in the Hunger Games, decided to become one of the tributes for the Minotaur so he could slay the beast, ending the sacrifices and essentially freeing his people of a tyrannical monster, ie he decided to mess with the status quo.

Does anyone see him as an unlikeable character?

Katniss’s motives are much more passive. She has no intention of being involved in the games until the games claim her little sister, then she is forced to volunteer. Once within the games she has no intent to do anything but try and stay alive as long as possible, no subversive motives for exposure or overthrow of the tyrannical monster. Yet even those who like the books call her unlikeble. This writer describes her as ‘prickly and occasionally cold’

She goes further listing one of my all time favourite heroine’s, Emma Woodhouse. It bewilders me that anyone would describe her as unlikeable because well, I like her. While someone who might be described as fitting into that ‘narrow likeable girl category,’ Lizzie Bennet, I really don’t have any time for. She is the for me a Mary Sue, who has become the writers favourite staple, perhaps because so many of us are bookish types rather than flirty beauties and we want our wit and ways to be appreciated. The problem is in doing so we have vilified those who are different and put a polished halo around our heroine. Some may like this, but for me, it’s arrogant, presumptive and something in all honesty I cannot relate to. And I am guessing I am not alone, as even in her defence of unlikeable this blogger came to the same basic conclusion..

“Sometimes there are heroines who are meant to be paragons of perfection–who are clearly intended to be “likable”–whom you’d really just prefer to stab with a fork because the narrative doesn’t recognize or address their accidental flaws”

I can’t pretend Emma and I superficially have much in common, but I relate to her slipping up, falling down, to others reactions to her. As one of those bookish types, one of the things I share with Lizzie, is that I am very good at watching life, even judging, not so good at jumping in and getting my hands dirty. Something Emma excels at. On a deeper level, I can connect, on a superficial level I can enjoy stepping out of my own skin.

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The fact that some of your characters might be unlikeable is not really an issue, the issue is whether you have given your reader something to care about. Might there be exceptions? Would Catcher in the Rye have been a better book if more had been able to like the protagonist? I suppose you can argue purpose but to illuminate without persuasion seems contradictory. A broken boy full of pain and bravado and selfishness yet desperately wanting to be good and real at the same time? Seems like a lot of boys I know, who still struggle to be vulnerable in this enlightened future. Why would any book of that nature not benefit from a likeable character?

What about Lolita?

One of the main claims of the unlikeable camp is the idea that a likeable character doesn’t challenge you.

But in what way does Humbert Humbert challenge you. An unlikeable character doing unlikeable things doesn’t seem remotely unsettling. You can – as I did – simply choose to not finish it. I wasn’t interested and in fairness even if he had been likeable, perhaps even more so if he had been likeable, I wouldn’t have been willing to see it through. A likeable character doing unspeakble things? Nothing seems more challenging.

No one can tell you what to write. Not even your editor or publisher. You can always walk away. If you feel utterly compelled to write, to actively construct, a character from an array of unpleasant attributes with no notion of redeeming them you are free to do it. I would just ask, that you ask, why?

Contrary to the constant claims of challenge, of dark, subversive material, unlikeable often seems the easy option, the quick and dirty route to avoid the tricky question of emotional investment. In part it seems as though by excusing ourselves from the idea that a complex character with depth might in fact still be likeable, we can avoid the task of getting our readers to care. Much like high school being liked might be the trickiest test we ever sit. Easier to write those popular kids off as dumb, shallow, simplistic.

I’m going to confess something: I write to forgive. Not you personally, although possibly. I write to understand emotionally, not intellectually, people who seem on the surface very different to me. Likeability, for me, is about compassion, connecting with the humanity within. When I encounter unlikable characters or even the author arguing for their right to write such a character, my instinct is that this character was never loved, they were a science experiment, seen, dissected, analysed and weighed from the outside. Much like this writer:

It’s my badness, my evil, metastasised. Werner Deyer has a mean spirited misanthropy, which stems from his belief that the world has failed him. He is vain, gluttonous and has an unedifying craving for affirmation, adulation even (a reason many people write, in fact).

But even in his description he has named and shamed the character. He’s judged him as worthy of all of his worst traits. Is that liking a character, or liking your depiction of your own self loathing? We can admire something without liking it one teeny bit

When you are willing to walk in your characters shoes, you’ll find ways to forgive them their sins, to excuse their weaknesses, to understand their fears. You forgive them, because them is I. And we always forgive that guy.

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One thought on “When did likeable become a dirty word?

  1. Characters are what matter to me. On rare occasions a book or film will have a story that is so compelling that I will be caught up in the events themselves. In general, though, if the people in the story aren’t people that I would want to spend time with in real life, then I won’t want to spend time with them in fiction.

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