Who’s likable?

The other day in a conversation with other writers, I said something about wanting likable characters. Seriously. If I’m taking time out of my life to spend with people, fictional or otherwise, then I want to like them.

This may sound hopelessly uncool or naïve or whatever, but as the conversation continued, I realized that we may not all be thinking the same thing when we say “likable.” In that conversation, we talked about characters we liked, and they weren’t bores or saints.

In real life, I like some fairly difficult people. For instance, I like someone who tends to snap first and help later. But this person does help in spite of their grumpiness, and I like that. We all have our flaws, as they say.

Likable isn’t perfect. Heck, if someone was perfect, they probably aren’t likable. Likable isn’t nice all the time or without the ability to really screw up.

Serial killers, abusers, scammers walk among us, and some authors can make readers connect with truly terrible people. Your mileage may vary of course. That’s the other thing. Likable is hard to pin down. What is likable to one person, won’t be likable to another.

Maybe likable is the wrong way to look at it.

Characters need to be flawed. We learn that in writing 101, right? Make your character real. Give them flaws. How do you not give them flaws? Because even if I write a character who I think is really amazing, someone is going to come along and says, “OMG! They’re so annoying!”

By likable do we mean relatable?

Why do we like a character? Why do we love them? They remind us of ourselves? They want what we want? Or they want in the way that we want? They make us laugh? They do what we wish we could do?

Or another character shows us their humanity?

Sherlock (in the BBC Benedict Cumberbatch version anyway) might not be that likable, but Watson likes him and we tend to like Watson. He’s our “in,” so to speak.

The more I try to figure out what I mean by likable, the more I’m unsure about it. I know when someone talks about a series they’re watching and how in it “everyone is shitty,” that is not a selling point. I listen to the news. That’s enough shitty people for me.

I guess it depends on why you read fiction in the first place. I don’t go to books to hate humanity. Honestly, that seems too easy to do. I’m fine with being challenged, being surprised, or being baffled by characters. But there’s that weird, hard to point to line, and the minute you draw the line is the minute it moves, it bends, it breaks. I do like some stories with unlikable characters, but part of me actually likes these difficult, intractable, rash souls. In which case, they aren’t really unlikable, are they?

Sometimes I’ve picked up a book that seems promising. Its premise speaks to me or I heard good things about it. And then about a quarter of the way in, I have to admit that I just don’t like the main character or anything about the story. Was the main character terrible? Uh…no. Like most main characters they did good and bad things. They just felt like characters created to prove a point, not like characters in their own right. Their wants felt untrue and their choices felt forced. I quit reading because life is too short to finish books I don’t like.

Do you have a favorite so-called unlikable character? Why are they unlikable and why do you like them anyway?

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5 thoughts on “Who’s likable?

  1. Clare Wuellner

    I am somewhat obsessed with “Hannibal”. There are so many truly , ridiculously sick people. Yet when Hannibal is fighting for his life against a fellow serial killer I found myself saying “Oh god! Get ‘im, Hannibal!” And then I thought, wait a minute. If Hannibal died, that would be GOOD.

    That’s some seriously good writing.

    > >

  2. I’m pretty sure you didn’t watch The Sopranos, right? I think the likability of the characters (and/or the actors playing the roles) played a HUGE part in the series’ success. Their actions and words could be positively appalling, but were put across to the audience in such charming wrappers — humor, physical appeal, pathos, confusion about life changes or current events — that the audience found themselves on the side of “the bad guys.” It’s hard to really DISlike someone who makes us laugh out loud or tear up (sometimes both) week after week after week, y’know? Even in the episodes where they spend 10 minutes disposing of a dismembered body!

    In the pilot episode, Tony Soprano is almost immediately identified as someone with a solid clutch of human frailties and misfortunes. Had he not also been granted a winning smile and a drawerful of snappy dialogue, I think his viciousness would’ve been a lot harder to ignore. Contrast that with his elderly mother, Livia: one of the series’ genuinely unlikable characters, her only visible signs of a sense of humor are a grim satisfaction in having made someone else unhappy — she kills, in every episode, via a thousand little cuts. And when confronted, she responds with scorn and lines like, “Oh, why don’t you just go away and let me die?”

    Aside: another context in which we hear likability regularly discussed is politics… the old “Sure, I wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with [Politician X] — why wouldn’t I vote for them?!?” line of thinking. We LIKE such people because they carry themselves with convincing charm… and we DISLIKE being lectured or harangued. It has a lot to do, I think, with how seriously they think of themselves. One of your other commenters mentioned Tyrion Lannister, and I think that’s a key to his (TL’s) success as a character: he doesn’t take himself real seriously.

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