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Why “likeable” characters aren’t important

Lazy reviewers – often online reader-reviewers – tend to be deeply concerned about whether or not a character is “likeable” and use this as the foundation of their overall critique of a book. Laura Miller skewers this propensity in an article for Salon‘s reading club:

I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.

James Wood, in his book How Fiction Works, wrote that this complaint implies that “artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.” That we might recognize a character’s unappealing qualities while simultaneously seeing life through her eyes, “and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind,” doesn’t seem to occur to far too many readers. Wood calls this sort of criticism, so common in Amazon reader reviews, a “contagion of moralizing niceness.”

The Salon reading club is currently discussing (what else?) Freedom. Miller describes her feelings about one of the main characters:

Patty is not nice. She does some bad things, and she can be grouchy and bitter. I wouldn’t necessarily want her as a friend, but then that’s not really an option because she’s not a real person. She’s a literary character — which means it’s not imperative that we take a moral stance on every single thing she does. Literature is an experiment of the imagination, and if we don’t try to leave behind our contemporary compulsion to pass judgment on everything and everyone when we enter into that experiment, then we are the ones who lose out.

  • Robert Ballantyne

    Here, Here! The whole culture is drowning in the sewage of the “likeable.”

  • Paul

    Imagine that – people who don’t want to pay money to spend hours with thoroughly unpleasant characters who have no redeeming virtues. What’s the world coming to?

  • Jeff

    Interest in characters often takes the place of an interest in a novel’s structure, style, and word choice. Emphasis on characters, and also on plot, is an easy out when a reviewer is asked to sum up a book in 600 words. Reviewers in printed publications, as well as others, go this route.

    It’s when a book doesn’t have likeable characters that some reviewers flail around trying to find something to say. However, since the writers most often reviewed are presenting ‘historical’ fiction, or some type of genre work (YA, detective, and so forth), this doesn’t cause the truly lazy reviewer much of a problem. Because that reviewer isn’t going to pick up J. Robert Lennon or Gabriel Josipovici, whose books will make demands that classify them as experimental.

    My book, Verbatim: A Novel, comes out this month from Enfield & Wizenty. It takes place in a legislature in a fictional Canadian province. It’s told in lists of members, debates in dual-column format, and letters. No narrative passages, no lyrical language. The ‘characters’ are politicians and bureaucrats, and there isn’t a protagonist: maybe they’re all antagonists. But there can be an excitement (hopefully found in this book) in reading about ideas, or taking in how Canadians govern themselves, that can be enough. You don’t have to have characters or a plot. There are many other elements to a novel or short story.

  • Steven

    In a screenwriting workshop, the instructor said that “unlikable” is a common criticism studio execs (who are known to be as lazy as some reviewers) use to describe a character, when what they really mean is they don’t care about the character. It’s interesting to note that the more compelling a character is in fiction, the less I would actually like to meet him or her in real life. That may be why I reread The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz every few years.

  • Beth Thompson, Infaheat

    Likeable my a**, if I like the story then I will like the book.

  • Murray

    My only comment would be “no comment.”

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