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Why We'll Never Stop Arguing about Likable Characters

01/23/2014 10:45 am ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

"I just didn't like any of the characters."

It seems to come up in every book discussion. At my book club of choice--Minneapolis-St. Paul's Books and Bars, which brings literary banter to local watering holes--a statement like this will often be met with barely-stifled sighs or groans; we don't like to talk about likability. Arguing about whether or not we liked a fictional character can feel like a distraction, one that keeps us from discussing more interesting matters: a book's themes, for instance.

Lately, the literary conversation has been starting to agree with us. Novelist Claire Messud has argued on behalf of unlikable characters, and so has Roxane Gay; Kelly Braffet, meanwhile, thinks we should quit talking about likable characters altogether. I mostly agree with these writers--as a reader, I want books with characters who are likable, unlikable, and everything in between. (I tend to like the unlikable ones best; I'm weird like that.)

But in spite of my preferences to the contrary--and Messud's, and Gay's, and Braffet's--the debate about whether or not fictional characters are likable is one we can't seem to stop having. It's an argument that keeps coming up, even as we try to dismiss it as irrelevant.

So, I'm giving in to the inevitability of arguments about whether or not fictional characters are likable. No matter how much we fight it, they'll still happen. In fact, I've come to believe that discussions of likability are the opposite of irrelevant--that beneath the surface, the concept of likability actually contains something vital about why we read in the first place.

I guess you could call me a likability convert.

Here are a few reasons why we'll never stop arguing about likable characters--and why we shouldn't want to even if we could:

The notion that audiences should have an emotional response to fictional characters has been around for centuries.
The whole thing started with Aristotle, one of the very first philosophers to write about how he thought literature should work. In his Poetics, Aristotle said that a work of fiction should arouse an audience's feelings of "pity" for the protagonist. Pity in this context might mean something like empathy or sympathy; that's perilously close to the dreaded modern concept of character likability. I can picture the ancient Greek book club now: "I just didn't pity Oedipus," says Aristotle as Plato rolls his eyes, "I don't know, maybe it's just me." Whether or not Aristotle was right, the point is that people have always had the idea that they should have an emotional response to fictional characters, from literature's beginnings through the present day.

Audiences' emotional responses to fictional characters are unpredictable and often illogical.
Characters like Cersei Lannister and Hannibal Lecter are murderous villains we love to hate; yet the poor girls of HBO's Girls are constantly subjected to criticisms that they're not likable enough. Why? Who knows! There's no telling how an audience will respond to a character; that's precisely the point. Things don't get real for a work of fiction until it crashes up against the subjective experience of an audience. One person might love a character, the other might hate him--the real question is why. Which brings me to my next point...

Likability can be a stand-in for a reader's emotional identification with a character.
What do we really mean when we say we like or dislike a character? We might mean that we identified with her--or didn't. This is one of the reasons we read fiction in the first place: to see ourselves in the pages of a book, to find a point of shared humanity between ourselves and others, and to live vicariously through them for a time. Identifying emotionally with a fictional character can be a thrilling experience--it can also be a harrowing one. So, when we say we liked a character, we might be saying that we identified with her, that we enjoyed being in her head; when we say we didn't like a character, we might mean that we didn't identify with her, or maybe that we did identify with her but felt uncomfortable about it, that we saw things in the character we don't like about ourselves.

Likability can also be a stand-in for our judgments of whether we approve of a character.
Each of us only gets one chance at life, one shot at getting it right, and one of the things that makes fiction so appealing is that it gives us a chance to vicariously live other lives--to try on ways of being in the world, ways of being human, and to see how they feel. So, when we say that we don't like a character, what we might be saying is that we've tried on his way of being in the world, of treating others around him--and found it wanting.

Our feelings about a character can reveal our own biases.
There's a double standard for likability in fiction: Questionable behavior that we tolerate or even praise in male characters we often find unforgivable in female characters. Real-life prejudices about gender, race, and sexual orientation inevitably become part of our reactions to characters--part of why we might find them likable or unlikable. Though this might seem like a good reason to get rid of the concept of likability altogether, the question of who we do and don't sympathize with in fictional worlds can be the beginning of a self-examination of our prejudices and privilege in the real world.

More than any other, this last point demonstrates that when we respond emotionally to a fictional character--when we find ourselves liking or disliking them--we owe it to ourselves and others to interrogate that response, to ask ourselves why we feel that way. Saying that we liked or disliked a character shouldn't be the end of the conversation. It should be just the beginning.

So, the next time you're talking about a book you love and someone says, "I just didn't like any of the characters," resist the urge to groan. Instead, ask them, "Why? When you say you don't like this character, what do you really mean?" The resulting discussion might be about the importance of being kind to others and to ourselves during the times when we're hardest to love, about understanding and empathizing with people even when they make mistakes, or about the importance of examining our own biases.

In other words, precisely the kind of conversation that makes reading so worthwhile in the first place.