So. Today I wanted to discuss the "likability" quotient in characters and how it effects your publishability (which is also not a word), readership, and everything else. There's a bit of controversy over this, and I wanted to throw my thoughts into the mix.
What Is Likability?
So is one more likable than the other? Are both characters likable, or both of them not? Is likability an actual thing?
These questions are really hard to answer, which is probably why the controversy has grounding. But there's more to it than that.
Is Likability Necessary to Have a Good Character?
I don't think that likability should be as big of an issue in the publishing world as it is. I think both publishers and readers need to calm down, in regards to this issue, and think about the real reason for reading: to access new perspectives, new thoughts, and new ideas. If you only read perspectives that you like, if you only access character that are extremely similar to you and thus "likable", you're not going to get anything out of reading, except maybe some surface enjoyment. The best reading experience allows you to delve deeper and gain sympathy for those that are different than you, through the written word.
Name some of your favorite characters, right now. Any of them. All of them. Now tell me, are they "likable?" Obviously, you like them. But do you think they possess a general "likability"? This is hard to answer, again, because it's so variable. Think, then, more specifically. What traits do you like in these characters? Would others maybe dislike these same traits? Are there traits these characters have that you dislike? Now, you tell me: if your character possesses weaknesses or unlikable traits, is that wrong? Do they need to be changed to be more "likable"?
I'm going to use Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games as my own example, because it was actually in relation to her that I started really thinking about this. See, when I was in line to go see Catching Fire, there was a girl in line in front of me who said she really didn't like Katniss because she came across as weak and whiny in Mockingjay in particular. This upset me greatly, because in my mind, Katniss's strength is a character is the fact that she is very human, makes a lot of mistakes, and is not a perfect person by any means. I like the fact that she's sometimes very not likable. Why? Because I do relate. Because I'm not perfect. Katniss to me comes across as real, and in my opinion, that's much more important than being "likable."
However, there is something to be said for "likability." Because the truth is, if you get a character that is rude to everyone, has no sympathetic human side, or sets him/herself against the readers and thus alienates them, you're not going to have a lot of success. And writing isn't just an art, it's a business. Even if writing were just art, with no business and no sales and nothing like that to worry about, it is very difficult to get a message across when no one likes your character.
I do have a personal experience to share. Many of you know that, for a while, I did have a literary agent. The agency shut down before much came out of it, but what I did gain was some valuable editing experience and insight into the agenting and publishing process. The agency, before they shut down, worked with me a while on editing THE PSYCHIC STORY, which is the book I was sending out at the time. There were lots of little things to edit, prose and such, but two big things stood out. One was my excessive use of passive voice, which I'm really glad I'm aware of now. The other was the likability of one of my main characters, Mandy Gale. Within the first chapter, the agent had already brought up this issue.
I don't think Mandy is likable enough, she said. We need to relate to her more. Make her more awkward. Make her more lonely. Give us a better picture of how she's struggling at the beginning here.
This was my first experience having my characterization put into question, and it was rather upsetting for me. I was determined, though, to prove that I could do this and that they weren't making a bad investment, so I slowly set to work redoing Mandy. I created a new character, a more awkward and sympathetic being, in the place of the Mandy that I had originally created.
It was hard. But when I was done, I sat back with a bit of wonderment, because what I had created was some of the best writing I had yet exemplified. Mandy felt more real to me than any character ever had before, and all because I'd made her more "likable" through her awkwardness.
Now, I'm no longer working on THE PSYCHIC STORY, but everything I learned with it has brought me that much closer to publication and made me that much better as a writer. One of those things is that likability can be a very important characteristic.
But, readers? Maybe chillax a little. Give some consideration to what, besides a subjective likability, makes a character a good one. Expand your horizons.
If both writers and readers can compromise on this, we'll be in a great place, I think, in the publishing industry.
Is Likeability Sexist?
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