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book podcast I listen to recently held a conversation stemming from Claire Messud’s recent statement in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:

If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.

I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.

The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.

Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.

The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?

3 thoughts on “I Like You, Just Not In That Way

  1. Good observations. Scarlett O’Hara is a good example of a character that is highly flawed, not particularly likable, but so intriguing she carries the story on her back. I think primary characters can be good and really pop in a story whether they be adorable, despicable, moronic, or even insufferable as long as they (a) evoke SOME kind of emotional response (i.e. are not cardboard) and (b) evoke the author’s INTENDED emotion. For example, if the author tries to paint a character as loveable, sympathetic, and someone we should be rooting for, but instead the reader finds the character merely annoying, the characterization (and, if it’s a key character, the story) ultimately won’t work. Y’know, like Steve Urkel as Indiana Jones…

    • Ha! The statue sinks and a low rumble echoes through the cavern “Did I do that?”

      This touches on another topic which may warrant a separate post but has been on my mind since I recently read an FAQ from author John Green discussing his wonderful book The Fault In Our Stars. In this he discusses the concept of author intent. I’ll quote the relevant part that stayed with me:

      My intent as an author matters some, but you as the reader get some agency, too. You get to discover meaning within the story, and sometimes the meaning you discover will be meaning I hoped you would discover, and sometimes it will be meaning I could never have imagined you discovering.

      It’s interesting that I think this applies more to themes, symbols, and events than character, although it does affect a story as a whole, too. There is ambiguity present in a lot of great writing and I think the best examples hold up to multiple reader perspectives. Using Gone With The Wind, take Rhett Butler. I think plenty of people find themselves drawn to him because he can stand toe-to-toe with Scarlett, whose exploitation of the social constructs of the time to her selfish end gives her a leg up on others (Ashley, for example). Rhett, though, cuts through all that mostly by tossing decorum aside and calling Scarlett out. Yet if you take him outside the context of contrast, he’s smug, crass, misogynistic, mercenary and a lot of other things that certain readers (like me) find hard to overlook. Maybe Mitchell didn’t intend for everyone to necessarily root for Rhett, but since it’s a romantic epic, I don’t think that’s true. Yet despite me not catching the (assumed) intent, I was able to remain interested in the book because whether I liked either of them or not, I did feel they pretty much deserved each other and was interested to see how it played out.

      By which I mean, I agree with your point, but I think intent really only fails if intent and reception are so far apart that it strips away any sense of fascination, if it makes the reader stop caring what happens to them.

  2. Good point. Plus, sometimes my intent with a character changes as the story unfolds (more likely in a novel than a short story). In “The Way of Escape,” Chauncette starts out as a manipulative, self-absorbed, man-hater (not without cause, BTW). As the story progressed, however, I found myself drawn to having events compel her to be a sympathetic and surprisingly caring individual (a bit like Saul of Tarsus, perhaps). By the time I got to “Canceled Debts” she had made the move all the way from smug villain to vulnerable heroine. But then, part of the fun is having characters that never quite get there. Ronnie Stubbs goes from worthless rat to hapless loser to almost redeemed success back to loser. Not unlike real life oftentimes…

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