Where Literary Legends Are Born

Debate: Do Characters Need to Be Likable?

This week on the blog, we are having a good old fashioned debate. With the recent success of books like Gone Girl and TV shows like Breaking Bad, the idea of likeability in characters has come under fire. Yet, one of the most common reasons for rejection we see on the agency side is about struggling to relate to characters. What does likeable even mean? Do you need likeable characters to enjoy a book? Assistants Amy and Shannon debate this mostly subjective issue below!

 

Define “likeable.”

Shannon: I consider likable to mean someone I would want to hang out with. Also, being sympathetic doesn’t necessarily mean you are likable. There are a lot of characters who I feel for that I wouldn’t necessarily want to go to brunch with. Actually, I would probably go to brunch with pretty much anyone. Just to get brunch out of it.

Amy: To me, likeable means having qualities that I appreciate enough to feel a certain amount of affection towards a character.  I believe I would enjoy spending time with and getting to know this person.  They don’t have to be perfect, or even a “good” person, but if something about them intrigues me, I will find them “likeable.”  If I don’t like you as a character, I will not want to go to brunch with you.  Unless you’re paying.  And I can drown my dislike in free mimosas.

Shannon: And pancakes!

Amy:  And bacon.  OMG bacon.

 

Do the primary characters in a book have to be likeable for the book to be enjoyable?

Shannon: No. I think when people talk about likability what they actually mean is the ability to empathize with someone, which might not even mean you relate to them. But those are not the same thing! Personally I find completely likable characters pretty boring. No one is likable all the time. And it’s no debate that people are naturally drawn to characters they see as human and flawed for that reason. But I’m not talking about endearing flaws, like “klutzy” or “easily flustered.” Personally, I’m really interested in characters who have huge personality flaws, like vengefulness, extreme ambition, carelessness, meanness. The execution is what matters – you have to make me interested in them, even if I don’t completely sympathize. Voice can do a lot. So yes, I think it’s completely possible to enjoy a book full of unlikable characters. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I am much more interested in a story in which people with serious flaws collide than a story in which a mostly likable person beats out the unlikable villain.

Amy: Yes.  Absolutely.  I will only feel invested in characters I like for some reason.  Even if you’re a murderous psychopath, if you have an awesome voice and a snappy sense of humor, I’m probably going to (secretly, weirdly, rather guiltily) root for you.  Even if everyone else hates you, if I find something in you that makes me smile, something that draws me to your character, I will most likely feel invested in your story and enjoy reading about you.  Conversely, if i don’t care about anyone, I won’t feel invested enough to care about the story.  Investment is huge for me.  I like having someone to root for, however immoral my investment might be.

 

Okay, so how do you feel about a book like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or a book dominated by characters who aren’t traditionally likable?

Amy:  I honestly wasn’t a fan.  I understood the appeal, I thought the concept was interesting, but I ultimately did not enjoy the book because I didn’t find either of the main characters to be likeable.  I flat out didn’t care what happened the entire time I was reading.  Did I finish the book?  Yes.  Would I recommend it?  No.  But I would be fair and note that most people I’ve talked to really enjoyed it (and this is why the importance of likeability is subjective).

Shannon: Like most people I liked Gone Girl. Part of the appeal for me was the experience of being drawn into a story despite the main characters being mostly awful. I think this case (as well as many other great books with characters you might not want to hangout with) shows how people you might not necessarily want around you can still make an interesting story. Likability is overrated! Compelling over likable any day.

Amy:  Likeable IS compelling.  Wait, pause, Shannon, why do you keep spelling likeable with only one “e”?

Shannon: The internet dictionary says that both are acceptable. So there!

Amy:  But I think the preferred spelling is with two “e”s…?

Shannon: This is not what we are supposed to be debating here. Maybe we should have debated that instead?

Amy:  Over mimosas?

Shannon: Brunch is the most likable character of all.

 

Your turn to chime in! Do you think likability in characters is required? Let us know on Twitter @McIntoshandOtis!