In writing this title, I discovered that "quandrum" is a slang word, and not actual English. It's apparently a combination of "quandary" and "conundrum," which I did not know. So that's cool, but I'm gonna use quandrum anyway, because it's cool.
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.
Commonly, books are rejected because the main character does not possess this quality of "likability." Readers also will look down on characters who don't possess "likability." But there's a few important questions to ask here: a) what is "likability" exactly? b) is it really necessary for a good character? c) is there a component of sexism to this?
What Is Likability?
Naturally, "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 actions that can be accepted or appreciated.
Think about Iron Man vs. Captain America, for example. Some people would say Iron Man is unlikable because he's rude, arrogant, and a party animal. Others don't like Captain America because he's moralistic, rigid, and typical. But a lot of people, though they might pick a favorite, have admiration for both characters because they have many other good traits.
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'm gonna start 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 "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.
As writers, we do need to consider likability when we're working on our books. We need to figure out what traits in our characters people are going to relate to and like, and we need to figure out which they won't, and then we need to balance them. Make sure your character is both realistic and likable, to some extent or another.
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?
I'll address this last question only briefly, because other people have already discussed it in detail, and I don't have much to add. 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. Innately, naturally, it has no gender, but of course, we've brought our cultural sexism to the table and made it an issue, because we think being "nice" or "likable" is more important for women than for men. We've forgotten that there's more to women than likability, just like how there's more to men than that. So let's not forget that, in all our discussions. Remember to consider all the aspects of character in both men and women.
So there's my examination of "likability" and the controversy surrounding it. Do you agree with my thoughts? Have an opinion of your own? Tell me about your favorite character and their likability quota. Thanks for reading, and come back next time for an "on this day in my history" post!
Images via IMDB, hollywoodreporter.com, and aboutyoublog.com.
Why I Hate James Pat...
Hitler and Mother Ter...
The Lesser Evil: Femi...
Guest Post: 5 Fandom...
PTSD and the Hunger...
Successful People W...