Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On "Likable" Characters

In his review of Ian McEwan’s Solar, Greg Zimmerman over at The New Dork Review of Books, closes with this observation:
I won't render an absolute judgment on this book, because it'll appeal to different folks. If you're turned off by a protagonist who is such a turn-off, you'll hate this book. But if you don't need likable characters to enjoy a novel, this could work.
McEwan’s latest seems to have stirred up the on-going question about “likable” protagonists, and indeed it seems that the lead character here is a real piece of work. Still, the practice of avoiding unpleasant characters altogether seems to us  problematic and gets to a central conflict about why we read literature at all. Zimmerman recognizes these divergent interests in his bifurcated evaluation, but the Ape wonders about what it means to "need likable characters to enjoy a novel."

First, we might consider a working definition of “likability.” For the present purpose, it seems that in order for a character to be likable they must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Be sympathetic-- we generally identify with them or their situation.
  • Have noble or normative desires—they want things we either consider good or socially acceptable.
  • Be charismatic---If the character doesn’t possess either #1 or #2, they must have a personality that is sufficiently interesting, entertaining, or otherwise engaging enough to countermand their largely unpalatable selves.

As harmless as these qualities may seem, requiring them of a protagonist quarantines vast swaths of potential characters. This seems to us what separates those who read primarily for “pleasure” from those who read for more abstract goals.

In How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom articulates one of the Ape’s central beliefs about the value of literature:
one of the major reasons why we do read and should read is because we cannot possibly know enough people or know them closely enough.
Here, Bloom figures literature as an exploration of human possibility, with all the problems and potential of what that means. To close ourselves off from the “unlikable” privileges pleasure over experience and ensures, perhaps unbeknownst to ourselves, that we trod the safe terrain of the known.

Passing a happy hour is a signal satisfaction of reading, to be sure, but it is merely one of the satisfactions.


  1. In considering questions like this I always think of Austen's 'Emma' - it's the typical novel with a character that no one really likes. But it's perhaps the fact that we don't like her that gets the reader through. Either way, it's a fantastic novel.

    I'm faced with this problem at the moment as a writer. One of the protagonists of my novel in progress doesn't have much of a fanbase. Already people have said she's not very likeable. So I have to decide how much 'likeability' I want to give her. Hmm.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. One thing my bifurcated evaluation (ouch, my head!) manages to omit, or at least make explicit, is that Solar is satire, and if as a reader, you need likable characters to enjoy satire, you're in trouble...

    I love the Bloom quote, too - echoes of David Foster Wallace's "Fiction's about what it is to be a f*&%ing human being."

    Thanks for bringing this topic of "likable characters" up way more intelligently than I did in my sparse two lines. Cheers to you!

  4. I don't need to like the characters in order to enjoy a book, but I do want to understand them. What do they want? Why? What motivates them? If I can make sense of why the characters behave the way they do, I'm willing to stay with them, even if I disagree with the actions themselves.

  5. Excellent post... "How to Read and Why" is the next book on my TBR pile - due to your post I can't wait to start it.

    Books with likabe protagonists are usually more entertaining, but they aren't always the books that stay with us the longest. The unlikable characters often make the biggest impression.

  6. Interesting post, as always. I do sense that the majority of readers want a likable character, because putting up with an unlikable character takes a great deal of work. Not many people want to do that.

    Thing is, the more complicated they are, sometimes the more enjoyable they remain after we've had time to assimilate their form. But with some of McEwan's characters? I've found he has some rather irritating characters (Amsterdam, anyone?) that are hard to journey with. I just completed a novel called Siamese by Stig Saeterbakken where the main character is despicable, and I stayed with it despite revulsion. Was it worth it? Too soon to say.

    In Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, her character Aldred is so pathetically perfect (and likeable) that I despised him for his lack of any remarkable flaws. Too likeable. Ick.


  7. @Bethany: I'm afraid that if the goal is to sell books, then likable characters are the way to go. I wish that were not the case, but there it is.

    @Greg: Satire is a good counter-example, though I wonder if we tend to identify with the author of a satire rather than its protagonist.

    @Charley: That's an interesting wrinkle; I'll have to think about it. My initial reaction is to agree, but does that assume I am capable of "understanding" all humans? Going to let that simmer a bit.

    @Janna: Definitely think that's true. For example, while I may like Nick Carraway better than Gatsby, Gatsby is undoubtably more interesting.

    @Amy: I do think there is some sort of likability threshold; we also don't want characters of super-human quality either.

  8. In your list of criteria for a 'likeable' character, I would venture to say that you could leave off numbers one and two. If a character is charismatic, the reader will follow him/her to hell and back. Can't think of a better example than Humbert Humbert - a murderous slimy pedophile who is one of the most memorable characters in modern literature. I'd even go so far to say that despicable, but charismatic, characters are more interesting to read about precisely because they're neither sympathetic nor noble.
    On the other hand, a perfectly sympathetic character with noble aims but no charisma will probably hold my attention for just as many pages as it takes me to realize what a dull character he/she really is.