where the writers are
Should characters be likeable?

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.






7 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip


I've never been attracted to likeable characters. Rather, the ones who fail, who live on the edge seem so much more interesting. However, I also believe that many people might wish to empathise with what is nice and pleasant.

Your recollection about your brother's characters and your mother's response is understandable. I know that after hearing me read out some macabre poems, my mother immediately identified it as some suppressed dimension that would reveal secrets that were never there!

A vlook at the memorable charcaters you mention is enough evidence that likeability in literature has quite different standards from what we might apply to daily life.

Thanks for touching upon this subject.



Comment Bubble Tip

More on characters in fiction...and family connections

Dear Farzana: Thank you for your comment. It has prompted me to write a related blog, which you may find of interest.  It will deal with the challenge of actually writing about family members. Robert

Comment Bubble Tip

Close encounters

Thanks, Robert for the followup piece. While it is difficult to write about those one is close to, it also happens to be the easy way out. Almost all first novels are autobiographical to an extent.

I might add here that blogs too tend to touch upon what might be everyday things in one's life, but a mention of an incident or person, however circuitously, could well end up needling a raw nerve.




Comment Bubble Tip

I don't need characters to be

I don't need characters to be likable, but I do want them to be interesting, and somehow real.  If they're unlikable and they're cartoons, I get partway through whatever it is and think, "why the heck am I reading this?"   I don't like it when they're stupid, either, when it is something done by the author to them for a plot device.  If a character is stupid, that's okay, but if it's an otherwise intelligent character who suddenly acts totally different because it's useful to the story instead of a natural consequence of something, it feels to me like the author cheated.  Cheated me, and cheated the character.

Comment Bubble Tip

Do characters need to be likable

I agree with you; interesting is the benchmark, whether interesting good or interesting detestable is less important.

After writing this piece, it did occur to me that dislikeable characters sometimes are more interesting because they hide their unseemly features and the reader becomes engaged in ferreting out what's wrong with them.  Likeable characters have less to hide, and are something of a challenge to sustain.  Last night I was reading some stories in a major anthology of "the best stories of 20th century America," and I did exactly what you do when I found myself halfway through a story whose protagonist was utterly vapid. I just stopped reading. Best stories of 20th century America? Come on. John Updike must have been in his cups when he put his name on that volume as editor.

There's a French writer called Michel Houellebecq whose writing seems to be attracting a lot of attention these days; he's frequently mentioned in the New York Review of Books.  From the reviews, Houellebecq seems to have made the discovery that complete nerds are the modern norm and should be honored for their pointlessness.  This is a French nihilist way of insisting that being boring is being interesting...very interesting.  I once knew a lovely Spanish writer named Juan Benet who was great company and highly regarded, but he said to me once, "My work is so boring...unbelievably boring," and I read as much of what he had written as I could bear because he was right.  There was one volume of essays about Madrid in the 1950s I liked, but when Juan wrote about Galicia and described things with the numbing precision of the engineer that he was by training, he really put you to sleep.


Comment Bubble Tip

Interesting equals human

Another way to describe "interesting" is that we have to be able to relate to the characters. The main character, at least has to be human in a way that we can say, "If I were in that situation, if I had that background, maybe I'd.." I think Andre Dubus III is really good at this: I can't stop reading his books although his characters are hardly admirable.

Recently, I was at a novel-writing workshop where they gave a rule that the protagonist had to be likable in the first ten pages, at least. I looked at my unpublished novel to see if I had met the test. I'm not sure. My character doesn't doesn't have kids or a dog to love, which is a good way to do it.  But I like my beginning so think I'll wait until I find that elusive agent and see what he or she thinks.

Comment Bubble Tip

What does interesting mean?


I enjoyed your comment.  I can't endorse any rules about likeability or anything else in a novel, so I'm glad you're sticking to what you've written.

It seems to me that "interesting" is important, however, and it also seems to me that interesting is a perspective on a character that reveals the kinds of interior and situational quandaries we all experience.  These can be psychological, plot-driven, physical...whatever.  What we don't want in a book is the kind of drive-by encounter we have at Christmas parties or watching Little League games with other parents. I'm not trying to be excessively profound here; I think the point is pretty obvious.  Take me somewhere that's rich and provocative and unafraid to reveal itself for better or for worse.

On the question of novels and first chapters, one of my writing instructors, Edmund White, recently wrote a review in the New York Review of Books in which he said something like this: First chapters should be full of questions, uncertainties, and a kind of open-ended fuzziness that the rest of the novel can address in due course.  I really liked that comment.  The formulaic approach you heard at the novel-writing seminar may appeal to commercializers of writing, but not to literate readers or literate writers.

At the moment I'm reading William Gass's Cartesian Sonatas (for the second time).  Gass resolutely does not write about likeable characters but he absolutely does make them interesting, quirky, hyper-observant, etc., etc. He is generally short on plot  but always long on stunning images, metaphors, and prose rhythms. Character to him is a fiction that extends only as far as the sentence and characteristics at hand. A long nose, for instance. That we may know, and many other things, but perhaps nothing about the length of toes, or whether the character even has toes (if Gass doesn't mention them, he doesn't appear to think they exist, in a literary sense.)

Another interesting comment on novels in general came from a review I read recently of a re-issue or study of Ambrose Bierce's short stories.   Bierce said something like this: novels are overstuffed short stories in which more happens (or doesn't happen) than anyone can remember by the time she finishes the book, most of which, on analysis, is unrelated to the core literary revelation the author has being trying to hit upon.