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 generally everything else. There's a bit of controversy over this, and I wanted to throw my thoughts and experiences into the mix.
So I thought I'd talk a bit about all three questions there. First of all:
What is Likability?
This is a difficult thing to quantify, as "likability" is somewhat subjective. Do you relate to the character? Do you think they're a good, morally sound person? That's going to depend on your own preferences and life experience. A character someone else really likes might be a character you hate, or only tolerate. You might consider there to be multiple kinds of "likability," different traits and different acceptable actions that you seek as a person.
So which one's likeable? Which one isn't? Are they both likeable, or both 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.
I'm gonna start right off with my answer to this: yes and no. And now I'm going to explain.
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 "likeable", you're not going to get anything out of reading, except maybe some surface enjoyment. Real readers try to delve deeper and gain sympathy for those that are different from them, through the written word.
Name some of your favorite characters, right now. Any of them. All of them. Now tell me, are they "likeable?" Obviously you like them. But do you think they possess some form of general "likeability"? This is hard to answer, again, partially because of the lack of definition for "likeability." Think, then, more specifically. What traits do you like about them? Would others maybe dislike these same traits? Are there traits about these characters that you dislike? Now tell me - if your character possesses some kind of weakness or traits that are unlikeable, is that wrong? Do they need to be changed to be more "likeable"?
I'm going to use Miss 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 at its premiere, there was a girl in line in front of me who said she really didn't like Katniss, and that she thought Katniss 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 likeable. Why? Because I do relate. Because I'm not perfect. Katniss to me comes across as real, and that to me is, in some ways, much more important than being "likeable."
However, there is something to be said for this unquantifiable "likeability". Because the truth is, if you get a character that is rude to everyone, has no sympathetic human side at all, or in general just sets him or 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 relates to or likes your character.
I do have a personal experience to share in relation to this. 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, with prose and such, but two big things stood out in this editing process. One was my excessive use of passive voice, which I'm really glad I'm aware of now. I focus a lot on mending this as I continue to write and edit. The other was on 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 likeable enough, she said. We need to relate to her more. Make her more awkward. Make her more lonely. Give us a better picture of where she is here at the beginning.
As a writer, this was my first experience having something so deep into my writing 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 (haha, well, it didn't work out anyway, but nice try, Kira), so I slowly set to work redoing Mandy, creating 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 make her more "likeable" through her awkwardness.
Now, as you all probably know at this point, I'm no longer working on The Psychic Story with intent for publication. This was a fairly recent decision, and a rather difficult one, given how much I put into this book, agent work and all. But the good news is, everything I learned with The Psychic Story has brought me that much further towards publication and made me that much better as a writer. I abandoned it because the lessons I'd learned from it, and from other books, exceeded my ability to fix it as it was. Now, someday, I may rewrite The Psychic Story entirely, create a new plot and turn it into something better. For now, I'm focusing on other projects.
But what I learned from that experience was that likeability can be a very important characteristic, so it's one I'd better pay attention to. And I've tried, ever since then. My character have come more and more alive the more I've worked on it, and it's really helped me as a writer. So, lesson is, likability is important. As a writer, you need to give some weight to it.
But, readers? Maybe chillax a little. Give some consideration to what, besides a subjective likeability, 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.
I'll address this last question quickly, seeing as I've already written a lot, and seeing how much this has already been discussed in general. People question whether the likability trait is sexist, because when you see people complaining about likability, the most likely culprit is a female character. My character was female; so is Katniss. And my answer to this is that yes, to an extent, "likability" is a sexist trait. However, the likability of male characters is also questioned sometimes, though it's never said in that exact term. (Male superheroes, like those I examined at the beginning, do get a lot of flak from varied people, probably because favorite superheroes have become something like sports teams.) It is a factor for them as well as for female characters. It's just not examined as much. So likability isn't inherently sexist. It's just become a somewhat sexist examination.
Images via IMDB, hollywoodreporter.com, and aboutyoublog.com.