This could be my personal blind spot, so it makes sense to explore it a bit. The issue is whether it is important that characters in fiction be likeable. The first time I heard the subject raised was fifty years ago and directed at my brother, who then was writing short stories. My mother asked him why all of the women in his stories were such bitches.
My recollection is that he hadn't thought about it, didn't see his female characters as bitches, but correctly sensed that my mother thought he wrote the way he did because he had the mother he did. "People will wonder if you get it from me--that I'm some kind of bitch."
This wasn't a bitchy thing to say and my mother wasn't a bitch, so my brother was doubly nonplussed.
Now my memory lacks clarity. I'm not sure,but I think he probably said he was just telling stories and the characters developed in keeping with his plots. Or some such schoolroom response.
I have a story coming out in The Toronto Quarterly in a few weeks in which one character maintains that art should always be uplifting whereas the other principal character sees art as a great way to take revenge on her ex-husband and his fat girlfriend. The way I tell the story, the character who believes art should always be uplifting gets skewered in the end, just like the ex-husband and the girlfriend.
It really doesn't seem to me that likeability is much of a factor in literature. Ahab--likeable? Jason Compson--likeable? About 50% of Dostoevsky's characters--likeable? What about Shylock? MacBeth? I'm not sure Hamlet or Stephen Dedalus qualifies as likeable, though I do confess there's something likable, to me at least, about Leopold Bloom.
But many readers do want to like at least one character in a story, and I can understand that. Readers enjoy empathizing with characteristics that are praiseworthy or endearing, and they often don't enjoy spending times with creeps. My aunt put it this way once about Bonnie and Clyde, the movie: "Why would I spend money to go see something like that? I want to see things I don't have." I don't think she had many Bonnies and Clydes in her life, but you get the point: swimming pools, servants, yachts, intriguing gentlemen, that's what she was after.
Harold Bloom has commented that Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridien is one of the most captivating, despicable, frightening characters in fiction. He's a ghastly, bloodthirsty fellow, amoral and vicious. Neither my mother nor my aunt would get very far with him, but the demonic qualities in the Judge are, in my opinion, estimable acts of literary imagination.
Lately--and this is why the question of likeability has come up--I have been writing stories centered on Washington, D.C., which more or less has been my home for thirty years (when I wasn't living abroad as a diplomat). And here's the problem: what many non-Washingtonians suspect about Washington is rather true. The important features of too many Washingtonians are not pleasant, the atmosphere is negative, people tend to assume that not much good is achievable here.
That's worth writing about, but to illustrate the malaise (a word that Jimmy Carter used once, had it backfire on him, and never used again), one must go into the tiny but highly leveraged ambition and greed of the place--smallish, cunning folk gathering together mountains of pennies that will make them rich...or get them re-elected.
The question then presents itself: is satire the only way to write about Washington? In satire, the villains outnumber and outwit the heroes. I'm beginning to think that's probably the way to deal with this place, but I don't find it an especially confining way to write. My favorite short story writer, Flannery O'Connor, captured human frailty with delicious insight and wickedness. Her too-smart-for-their-own-good Georgians and my too-smart-for-their-own-good Washingtonians have a lot in common.
This all came together on Capitol Hill last week when one member who didn't want Asian catfish competing against his district's catfish claimed that the honorable gentlemen who was promoting Asian catfish wasn't really talking about catfish because who had ever seen a catfish that looked like these Asian catfish? They weren't catfish at all, and no biologist could change his mind.
Flannery O'Connor, meet your unlikeable successor characters. They're fascinating in a way. They lie. They trade stocks based on inside knowledge just as Jason Compson would suspect. They wear ties that would half blind you and sport tans that are one step this side of skin cancer.
I may have to stop writing about these guys and gals for a while because people really, really don't like them. On the other hand, as Dante found out, it's much more fun to write about hell than heaven. The characters there are more interesting.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund