This past weekend I was chatting with a new friend here in London about what kind of people we were in high school. I admitted, with maybe the hint of a blush, that I was always part of the “smart nice girl” crowd, and then I realized that probably would surprise no one. I’ve always been a bit of a dork, still am, actually, (do I need to revert to pirate talk again to prove my point?) but even more than that, I’ve always been nice. Which I know is a loaded word, and not one I tend to like to use. Nice feels weak to me, ineffectual, and worst of all, boring. But I don’t think of myself as any of those things, and yet, I’m, well, nice. I’ve always placed importance—and lately, I’m thinking too much importance—on other people’s opinions of me, and at heart I’m a true people pleaser. I came to this conclusion a few years ago, when I was at the gynecologist having my yearly exam. Here I was, on the cold table, legs in stirrups, and ridiculously uncomfortable, and what did I do? I started cracking jokes so that the doctor, a woman whose relationship to me began and ended with her examining my vagina, would like me. And no, in case you are wondering, she didn’t laugh. We are not best friends; in fact, I can’t even remember her name. And yet, I walked out of that exam, well, vaguely unsatisfied if you must know the truth.
I swear I have a writing related point here, though. As I mentioned the other day, I had a great conversation with a book club this weekend, and one of the issues that came up—that actually comes up a lot when I talk to book clubs—is the concept of likeability of characters. Aidan Donnelly Rowley, the author of LIFE AFTER YES, touched on this question on her blog a few weeks ago, in response to someone saying they found her main character to be, well…not very nice. And pretty much any women’s fiction writer will tell you that often reviews seem to be less about the literary merit of the book, and much more a referendum on whether the reader “liked” a main character.** I often get the criticism that my main characters start out un-likeable—why would Emily dump such a nice guy like Andrew in THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE? why would Ellie just walk away from her husband with little explanation in AFTER YOU?—and it takes a while to understand and appreciate the complexity of their motives. Hopefully, the wait is worth it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve lost a reader or two who wasn’t willing to take the ride with a character they didn’t immediately like. I blurbed Aidan’s book, and one of things I made sure to mention was that I really enjoyed the book because of the fact that her main character was flawed and very, very human. She makes choices that some of us would consider just plain unforgivable, but that’s what makes the book come alive for me.
So let me be clear—I don’t believe writers have a responsibility to make their main characters likeable. Look at LOLITA, one of the most beautiful and arresting books ever written, and it’s about a child molester. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about likeability quite a bit while I’m writing and creating my main characters, and of course related to this, because I think they may be one and the same, I take much care in making sure that readers will enjoy my main character’s voice. Since I write in the first person, I do want the reader to be taken with that voice that’s leading them through three hundred and some pages, and to do that, I don’t necessarily need to make my character nice, or even likable, but I do have to make them engaging and interesting and someone that my reader wants to spend that time with.
To bring this back full circle, in literature as in life, and yes, I totally just used that phrase, I maybe place too much emphasis on being liked. On a total side note, if my brother is reading this blog, he is laughing his ass off. Though come to think of it, he’s definitely not reading this, because he is spending this week volunteering at a camp that caters to homeless children. I know. He’s my brother, and even I’m charmed. But be warned, he’s not nice at all. When I was eight, I let him call me “gorda” for months, thinking it was just a cute nickname. Which it was, until I discovered that it meant fat in Spanish. So he’s likeable, even loveable, but nice? Not so much. Anyhow, I’ve digressed, and then digressed with my digression: My original digression was that my brother is laughing his ass off because when we were young, we had a theory that if you wanted to get an A on an English paper, you needed to know two phrases: “In literature as in life” and “Man’s inhumanity to man.” Trust me, high school English teachers love that shit. I swear it’s what got me into Penn.
Are you still with me? Yes. So long story short. I’m nice. Which is a word I don’t like, but there it is. And I try to be likeable***, which I’m starting to see as a fatal character flaw. But maybe I’ll save that story for therapy. And when I write, I try to find a balance between likeability and humanity, because plain old nice characters are boring. Come to think of it, Don Draper maybe a good example from television. Yeah, he’s a lying, cheating, son-of-a-bitch, and yet, because we also understand him, we still, despite all his crap, sympathize with him, root for him, even. And honestly, I don’t think it’s just because we want to see him naked.
So what say you readers? How much does likeability matter to you when reading? And do you find when discussing a book that you can’t help but ask whether you liked the main character? Or are you one of the rare few who can honestly say you find it irrelevant?
** I think there’s a point to be made here that women writers are more subject to this type of criticism, and where the gender bias is felt most keenly is with memoirs. Men can write about doing all sorts of horrible things—beating up hookers, for example—and get rave reviews in the New York Times. A woman tells the same story, and she is whiny and over-sharing. But that’s a discussion for another day. And I do think women are taught to place a greater value on being nice and liked, which is no doubt a trap I’ve fallen into my entire life.
*** Apparently, the words "likeable" and "likable" are interchangeable. I have used the former, because the latter reads like "lickable" to me, and in case I wasn't clear about it, that is not what I was talking about in regards to my gynecologist.