Lately I’ve read several book critiques where the entire value of a book hinges on the likability of the main character. This…confuses me.
More on my confusion in a minute. Let’s get to defining likability first. The critiques I’m referring to seem to use the word pretty rigidly—as in, I want this character as my best friend. If the character is not best friend material, the book is at best average, at worst unreadable.
So here is where my confusion lies: I love a lot of weird and wacky and terrible characters, but I don’t want to be best friends with them. That’s part of the joy of reading, getting to see people up close that you’d never want to see up close in real life. Is everyone familiar with Ms. Hannigan from Annie? She is one of my favorite movie characters of all time. I LOVE her. She’s an insane, horny, child-neglecting/abusing alcoholic, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want her as a best friend (or a babysitter). But I love her so much I wrote her into my second novel. (She’s the principal in THE SPACE BETWEEN US, if anyone’s curious.) I guess I’m just not sure why anyone wouldn’t want to read about seriously messed up characters.
If I limit myself to reading and writing characters that are perfect, or even perfectly adorkable in a fake-flawed Zoey Deschanel sort of a way (and yeah, I love her too—but I would want to be her best friend, so she’s not the “flawed” sort of character I’m talking about) then I’m missing out on an entire world of fabulous books. If my reading enjoyment rests solely on how much I want to squee with and hug my main character, I may as well be watching a Gilmore Girls marathon. Is there value in that, by the way? YES! I love Gilmore Girls marathons! And I enjoy writing characters that people genuinely like (I think Carmen from VIRTUOSITY is easy to like), but is that why I write/read literature? Absolutely not. And I think it’s a terrible way to judge literature. Limiting for the reader, and in the case of people who are reviewing or critiquing books, misleading to everyone who comes into contact with those reviews. It means shutting out so many inventive books and so much beautiful writing.
I love Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND not in spite of Scarlett O’Hara, but because of her. Do I want to be her best friend? Probably not. She would try to seduce my husband and steal my house, but she is so fascinating and complex and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.
I just finished reading WHAT WAS SHE THINKING by Zoe Heller. Fabulous book! The writing is beautiful and the story telling is smart. I actually started out liking the main character, but bit by bit, the writer feeds you reasons to doubt her, and by the end…well, I’m not going to spoil it. I’ll just say it’s clever and un-put-downable, and if my number one requirement for enjoying a book was warm fuzzy feelings for my main character (or ANY of the characters) I’d have missed out on a great read. And ditto for if I felt like my narrator’s view had to be %100 infallible.
I could talk about so many loveable books with unlikeable characters, but I think you get the point.
As a writer, I recognize how difficult those character decisions are—deciding whether to infuse enough redeeming qualities into a character that your reader is still rooting for them, or to leave them as detestable as possible because that’s the more honest way to tell the story. That means that as a reader, I never just pass over something unlikeable about a character without thinking about it. If the writing is good, it’s there for a reason. And if the writing is good, I owe it to myself and the author to try to figure out that reason.
So when I’m reading a book and I don’t like a character, rather than throwing the book across the room and exclaiming, “I will hate that author forever and ever,” I have to stop and think about WHY the character is that way. What is that author trying to tell me? What is the point? As a writer, I can tell you I don’t slave over my manuscripts and lose sleep over my storylines just to slap down any old caricature.
Are characters ever too unlikable? Sure. For me, at least. There are books I’ve struggled through or put down because I found the characters’ detestability so off-putting. I’m embarrassed how many attempts it took me to read Wuthering Heights. Probably five? Maybe six? And they were spaced out over years too. I’m not afraid of big scary books, but honestly, I’d get several hundred pages in and be thinking “I hate Heathcliff and I hate Catherine—why do I want them to get together—WHY DO I CARE? I DON’T CARE!” Then I’d put the book down for a few years. I’m not proud of myself, and eventually I did read the entire book. And even though I never grew to like Heathcliff or Catherine, I do recognize that if I’d deemed it unreadable it would’ve been my loss. That’s the responsibility I take on as a reader, though. If I can’t get over my own issues and let them block me, I miss out on what that author is trying to say.
Wow. This turned out to be longer than I anticipated. Are there sides to this issue I’m missing? I’m curious if people feel differently about the importance of likable main characters in YA. Reviewers of adult literature don’t seem obsessed with it in the same way, and I don’t like what that difference implies about the YA audience. It suggests that people don’t think teens are capable of understanding the complexity that flawed characters bring to a story, and that…well, that confuses me too. Because I think they are. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing for them.