Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Ramble on Likeability in Novels

Sometimes I want to read without thinking very much -- just for the rest and pleasure of being someone and somewhere other who and where I am. When I'm in this mood, I want characters (or at least my protagonist) to be likeable -- a person who's pleasant and interesting, who means well in the world, whom I want to spend time with. Jane Austen says facetiously in one of her letters, "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal"; my situation here is the reverse of that, as I want my fictional people to be very agreeable, so I don't have to go to the trouble of trying to find some fictional worth in them -- I can just be in the book and relax. During the production of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when it was a good day if I went home before 9 p.m., I downed Georgette Heyer Regency romances like kettlecorn, and I still sometimes turn to those -- or even more to Austen -- when I'm feeling stressed or distressed.

And sometimes I want to read and do a little more work -- read outside my comfort zone, sort through motives and morals -- all the pleasures of having my mind challenged and expanded rather than simply engaged. When I'm in this mood, I don't mind if people are unlikeable so long as they're real, and presented with full histories and friends and enemies and contexts, so I can find sympathy through understanding and empathizing with them rather than needing to be entertained or pleased by them. I LOVED The Casual Vacancy last year for the same reasons I loved The Corrections years ago -- the awfulness of many of the people is part of their humanity, and the full picture of humanity that both books present is a beautiful thing. But I very deliberately saved my reading of The Casual Vacancy for my Christmas break, as I knew I might not have patience for it if I read it under less relaxed circumstances. (And I haven't yet read The Cuckoo's Calling; from the reviews, it seems like a book I could read anytime, but I think I'm saving it now for my honeymoon in December.)

And of course making a character likeable is just a tool in the writer's toolbox like any other, which can be used or not in service of the ends the writer wants to achieve. Georgette Heyer needs to make her heroines likeable so we readers feel invested in their romantic travails, and the charm and comedy of such travails are what her books are about. J. K. Rowling in The Casual Vacancy is thinking about the breakdown of societal bonds and safety nets, the dissolution of a community through the increasing detachment of the individuals in it; and the characters are accordingly presented with their flaws on full display, so we can see the things that push them apart. (Michiko Kakutani should know to judge characterizations by a book's larger ends, which is why her review of The Casual Vacancy was so irritatingly stupid.) Yet the characters in both cases are still multidimensional and compelling in their dilemmas, which are always necessary qualities no matter the author's ends. It does take more art and skill to make an unlikeable character compelling than simply to make a regular character likeable, which is one of the reasons books with terrible characters (not characterizations!) so frequently win awards, and books with easily likeable characters are more often overlooked by the critical establishment. . . .

In the children's and YA world, we can sometimes be so anxious that children or teenagers will like reading or like one particular book that we make likeability a requirement, forgetting that most children and young adults are born with a taste for honesty before a taste for sweetness, and their fascination with the new and different can withstand a large measure of unpleasant behavior as long as there is still heart or vulnerability there. At age six, I was mesmerized by Ramona in Ramona the Pest because lord, that title spoke the truth! I did not like her -- straight-A me (even in first grade) would have been annoyed to have her in class with me -- but it was precisely because she was such a troublemaking train wreck that I loved reading about her, as she did all the things I never thought or dared to do. At the same time, in children's and YA fiction, authors are often looking to have readers invested in the story or the protagonist's emotional growth foremost (a la Georgette Heyer), with any larger observation about morals or society as more of a byproduct than the point (cf. my theory of YA fiction here); and as a result, likeability often serves children's and YA authors well as a technique, as few things draw us into a story more than liking the people within it.

I'll add, if the protagonist is not going to be likeable, I will want to see some special insight or beautiful language or high-stakes story going on, so I have something else to give me that little bit of pleasure until I get to understand the protagonist in full. With The Casual Vacancy, I appreciated Ms. Rowling's anatomization of this village and the people and their connections in it--how well she nailed every detail of their lives, from the addict's house to the self-satisfied grocer. And in both Ramona the Pest and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we readers can take pleasure in our superiority to the characters' bad behavior (Ramona) or small-mindedness (the Dursleys)--pleasure that keeps us going until we connect with Ramona or discover the magical world.

To conclude in a highly moralizing fashion:  "Likability" is not a necessity in fiction, as it is a quality deployed and desired by authors and readers at different times. People who sneer at reading for mental rest and pleasure are snobs and should be called out as such. People who never do anything but read for mental rest and pleasure should probably challenge themselves a bit more. There is certainly a larger reading audience looking for rest and pleasure than there is an audience looking to be challenged and changed -- especially as the world grows ever faster and more stressful; especially as we all have so much less time for reading (we think) -- which is why Janet Evanovich and James Patterson move so many more copies than Elinor Lipman and Roberto Bolano; likable characters with easily definable problems are much easier to sell from the agent's desk on. But as we readers look for many different things at different times, writers need to write many different people as their stories demand; and making it a requirement either way will ultimately limit both the writer's art and the reader's pleasure.


  1. Just read The Cuckoo's Calling and Robin reminded me sooo much of you --- from what one can know from your blog and book, obviously :)

  2. Wow. Great analysis. Thank you!

  3. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Thanks for a different view.

  4. most children and young adults are born with a taste for honesty before a taste for sweetness

    This is the crux of it, right there. Even more, children are growing up in an increasingly complex, confusing, and nuanced world. I think my older son was six when, playing with his army men one day, his little brother asked which side were the good guys and which were the bad guys. My 6 year old answered, "Neither. These gray guys think they're the good guys, and these brown guys think they're the good guys. They're just different sides."

  5. I found myself nodding at every paragraph of this post. Georgette Heyer is my relief reading, too, because, alas, Jane Austen did not right enough. Ramona Quimby had the same effect on me, except that I was compelled to read her because of our shared last name--how could I not?

    While I agree that children are born with a taste for honesty, I think they also appreciate complexity. They know that people are complicated and want to figure out how that works. I think that's one reason Severus Snape was so compelling. There was always the question of which side he would come down on, and his choice was going to determine whether he was good or evil, but he was more complex than an either-or. I suspect that wanting to know how that was going to work out contributed to the turning of pages.