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Characters don’t have to be likable to be lovable

Talking about “likability” in fiction ignores what the greatest literature does.

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One of the most illuminating — and often rewarding — parts about having a novel published is the ability to see your work through the eyes of readers. In the months of lead-up to the publication of my novel, Social Creature, I’ve heard a variety of responses from readers. For some, it’s a psychological thriller — a modern-day homage to The Talented Mr. Ripley. For others, it’s a Stillman-esque black comedy of manners about New York’s pretentious literati. For others still, it’s a book about religion, or faith, or doubt, or sin, or beautiful clothes, or late-night-parties, or female friendship, or sublimated queer love.

Yet one of the most common responses to my book — sometimes meant as a compliment, sometimes a critique — is that its lead characters, a charismatic and volatile narcissist and the cripplingly anxious, morally compromised striver who becomes her confidante, are not likable.

It’s a word I see often on Goodreads, and in reviews more widely. A “likable” character — and her stepsister, a “relatable” character — is, for some readers, a sine qua non of enjoyability. To read a book without likable characters is, necessarily, to read a book that has failed in its goal: to make readers care viscerally and emotionally about their journey.

Questions about likability vary by gender — and genre

Often, the debate about likability has centered on gender: Are female characters, like, say, female political candidates, held to a higher standard of likability than male ones? Certainly, when major debates about likability in fiction have been raised, it’s been by female writers. In an interview with Publishers Weekly’s Annasue McCleave Wilson, Claire Messud, the author of The Woman Upstairs , responded with horror to her interviewer’s statement that she “wouldn’t want to be friends” with Upstairs’s main character, Nora.

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Messud replied. “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.”

Messud’s words went viral, spawning several think pieces and a New Yorker roundtable in which a roster of authors, including Margaret Atwood and Tessa Hadley, decried the entire notion of “likability.” Many posited that female characters are, in particular, subject to the dictates of reader likability in a way that male characters are not.

But, of course, often “unlikability” — in female characters in particular — can itself be a kind of shibboleth for seriousness, as Jennifer Weiner points out in an important piece for Slate. Writing about Messud in particular, Weiner notes that a wholesale rejection of likability is de rigueur for many female writers attempting to exit the infamous “pink ghetto,” in which books by and about women, particularly by or about young women, are generally seen as less serious, less intellectual, and less literary than those of their male counterparts. “Likable” characters are thus for “unserious,” “commercial” fiction that is designed to salve or entertain — while “unlikable” characters belong to the vaunted realms of high literature.

As Weiner puts it, “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.” She points to the wealth of likable characters in what she sees as truly great literary and commercial fiction — “Francie Nolan, Anne Shirley, Meg Murry, Jo March. Offred and Clarissa Vaughn. Arya Stark. Billy Bathgate. Isadora Wing, Huck Finn. Every character in Anne Tyler’s books. Many of the women in Stephen King’s. Calliope in Middlesex and Quoyle in The Shipping News and Yossarian in Catch-22” — arguing that there is nothing de facto wrong or unserious in wanting these characters as friends.

Meanwhile, as Weiner points out, “unlikable” characters can easily become as parodic and one-dimensional as their sympathetic counterparts.

Truly great books teach us how to love, not like, their characters

But that dichotomy between “serious, literary, unlikable” and “commercial, breezy, likable” characters fundamentally glosses over the best of what great literature can accomplish. The best novels do not cater to likability, but they do demand lovability. The best characters — Humbert Humbert, Hamlet, Raskolnikov, Antigone — may be flawed, but they challenge us to love them, in a profound and even spiritual sense.

A character who is portrayed as fully human — a frayed and interwoven tapestry of flaws, neuroses, aspirations, longings, yearnings, hatreds, envies — cannot be easily likable. To truly understand a person, we cannot simply engage with their surface good qualities. We must know their brokenness, too, the terrible things they think, say, and do. And, ideally — when the work is good and well told — we must care about them anyway. We must learn to become invested in the journeys of whole, complete people, who are, like all human beings, both likable and unlikable.

“If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies,” 19th-century novelist George Eliot wrote in a letter to a friend, “it does nothing morally.” For Eliot, the purpose of storytelling was to foster a relationship between the reader and characters that could ideally be translated into the wider world. Fiction helps us cultivate our ability to love the unlikable, to care about those whose circumstances and characters and choices have put them outside the boundaries of care. And in so doing, it may attune us to do the same in real life.

I don’t think any of the characters in Social Creature are likable. I don’t want them to be. Louise, the protagonist, is a neurotic and self-deluded mess, a people pleaser who so craves the approval of those around her — and the seeming security of their lifestyles — that she resorts to desperate measures to keep the affection of her peers, lying to herself all the while that what she does, she does by necessity. Lavinia, her onetime best friend, uses her privilege and charisma to keep those loyal to her on a leash, enlisting everyone she knows in the unachievable task of bolstering her broken self-image.

The minor characters — indecisive men, brazenly cruel trust fund kids who get off on “trolling,” desperate hangers-on — don’t fare much better. But they are all, I hope, utterly human. Who among us has not crumpled in terror at the thought that those who know us best will no longer love us, nor tried to use external trappings (beauty, wealth, social media) to fill a gaping spiritual hole?

I do not want my readers to like my characters. But, I hope, they may grow to love them, and see in their flaws not some easy relatability but the possibility of a more difficult empathy.

Nobody, after all, is really “likable” — not when you get to know them. The best fiction recognizes that. It asks us to care anyway.

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