This blog post's original title included the word "quandrum", which is apparently not a real word, LOL. I guess I created a portmanteau of "quandary" and "conundrum." It's kind of fun! But now the title has the actual word in it instead.
Today, I wanted to discuss likability in characters and how it affects your publishability (which is also not a word), among other things. There's a bit of controversy over this, and I wanted to throw my thoughts into the mix.
Books are sometimes rejected because the main character does not possess this quality of likability. Readers sometimes also look down on characters who don't possess likability. But there are a few important questions to ask when considering this topic: What is "likability" exactly? Is it really necessary to have in a good character? Is there sexism to this idea?
What Is Likability?
Naturally, likability is subjective. Do you relate to the character? Do you think they're a good person? Would you want to be friends with them? That's all going to depend on your own preferences and life experience. A character someone else really likes might be a character you hate or vice versa. You might see multiple kinds of "likability" through the different traits and actions that you appreciate.
Think about Iron Man vs. Captain America, for example. Some people would say Iron Man is unlikable because he's rude, arrogant, and materialistic.. Others don't like Captain America because he's moralistic, rigid, and typical. But a lot of people, though they might pick a favorite, admire both characters because they have many other good traits.
So is one more likable than the other? Are both characters likable, or are both of them not? Is likability an actual thing? These questions are really hard to answer, which is probably why the controversy has validity.
Is Likability Necessary to Have in a Good Character?
Yes and no.
I don't think that likability should be as big of an issue in the publishing world as it is. Both publishers and readers need to calm down and consider the real purpose of books: to access new perspectives, thoughts, and ideas. If you only read perspectives that you like, if you only invest time in characters who are extremely similar to you or easy to get along with, you're not going to get anything out of reading except maybe some light enjoyment. The best reading experience allows you to delve deeper and gain sympathy for those who are different than you through the written word.
Name some of your favorite characters. Are they likable? Obviously, you like them. But do you think they possess a general likability? This is hard to answer, like I said, because it's so variable. Try considering what traits you admire in these characters. Would others maybe dislike these same traits? Are there traits these characters have that you dislike?
It's quite likely there are. Characters, like people, have a complex persona with good and bad sides both. So 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 an example because it was actually in relation to her that I started thinking about this. When I was in line to see Catching Fire, there was a girl in front of me who said she really didn't like Katniss because she came across as weak and whiny in Mockingjay. This upset me greatly because in my mind, Katniss's strength as a character is in the fact that she is very human, makes a lot of mistakes, and is not a perfect by any means. I like the fact that she's sometimes very not likable. Why? Because even when she's not easy to like, I 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 still something to be said for likability. Because the truth is that if you get a character who is rude to everyone, has no sympathetic human side, or sets themself against and alienates the readers, you're not going to have a lot of success. Writing isn't just an art: it's also a business. Even if writing were just art, with no sales to worry about, it is very difficult to get a message across when no one wants to spend time reading your character's story. So as writers, we do need to consider likability. We need to figure out which parts of our characters people are most likely to relate to and enjoy, and we need to figure out which ones they probably won't, Then we need to balance them. Make sure your character has enough of either (or both) relatability and likability to keep the reader invested.
Many of you know that, for a while, I had an agreement of sorts with 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 publishing process. The agent worked with me a while on editing #PsychicStory, which is the book I was sending out at the time. Two big issues stood out. One was my excessive use of passive voice. The other was the likability of one of my main characters, Mandy Gale. The agent brought up this issue in the first chapter.
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, so I slowly set to work rewriting Mandy. I created a more awkward and sympathetic being in the place of the Mandy that I had originally written.
It was hard. But when I was done, I sat back with a bit of wonderment as I realized that what I had created was some of my best writing yet. Mandy felt more real to me than any character ever had before, all because I'd made her more likable through her awkwardness.
I'm no longer working on #PsychicStory, 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 the things I learned is that likability can be a very important characteristic.
So if writers and readers can compromise on this, we'll be in a great place, I think.
Is Likeability Sexist?
I'll address this last question only briefly because other people have already discussed it in detail. Some people say that the likability trait is sexist because when you see people complaining about it, it's most likely in relation to a female character. My character was female; so is Katniss. My answer to this is that yes, to an extent, likability is a sexist trait. We bring our cultural sexism to the table and make it an issue because we think being nice or likable is more important for women than for men. As is often the case, we hold girls to a higher standard here, and we forget that there's more to them than just likability. So let's remember that, in all our discussions. Remember to consider all aspects of character in both men and women instead of judging them based on one issue.
There are my thoughts. Do you agree? Have an opinion of your own? Tell me about your favorite character and their likability. Thanks, as always, for reading!
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