It was Dan Powell on Twitter who sparked off this blog post. A few days ago he tweeted:
And he’s right. There are a ton of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads from people who hate books because they found the lead character to be unlikeable or inhumane. It chimed with a discussion that I had as part of my book club the other month. We’d picked Disgrace, JM Coetzee’s masterpiece, and whilst praise was unanimous, talk progessed to how Coetzee manages to get you to sympathise with a character who you shouldn’t ever find sympathy with. It’s a work of genius, and Coetzee’s ability to create sympathy is a mark of a stunning writer.
But, on Amazon, there are people who disagree:
“I failed to relate to the characters, failed to understand their motivations and found the references to Byron particularly tiresome.”
And likewise for Lolita:
“The attitude of the male character was very off-putting and anti-sympathetic.”
“I do not care how wonderfully Nabokov commands the English language, his subject matter is repugnant.”
Claire Messud really brought all this to the fore last year when she was interviewed in Publishers Weekly. When asked about whether she would want to be friends with the main character of her novel she replied,
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, 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?’”
Shortly after, commenting on Messud, Margaret Atwood said, “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.”
I pretty much side with both of them, and I would go one step further and paraphrase Messud in saying: If you are writing to find friends, you are in deep trouble.
What I mean by that is that if you are writing a novel in order to create characters who are all lovely and likeable, then you aren’t writing a story. You’re writing about a bunch of people who have no issues at all. What is there to resolve? Hell, even if your main character is perfect in every way and has no nasty bone in their body then you haven’t written a ‘character’, you’ve written a mannequin; someone that a reader can insert their brain into and operate like a little puppet. That’s not interesting. That’s not fun. If your character is genial and lovely, the kind of person you can get along with, then it’s very likely that there will be no conflict in your novel at all. Sure, there might a moustache twirling villain who they can rail against, but there’ll be no grey areas.
Take a look at a book like The Wasp Factory. Our narrator Frank is charming, funny; the kind of person that we, as readers, want to spend our time with. He’s also murdered three people and routinely kills animals in bizarre shaministic rituals. In fact, he doesn’t seem particularly remorseful about his murderous past, describing them as ‘just a phase I was going through’. Even more than that – the fact that we can not only sympathise, but be charmed by such a character, is what makes that book brilliant.
In the sitcom Community, there is an episode where two characters have to create a school mascot. In their attempts to make the mascot completely non-confrontational, and completely neutral, they create the Greendale Human Being.
This generic, bland person is a perfect symbol of what a 100% likeable character can become in your novel. A grey area. Boring. And that’s the last thing a character in a novel should be. If you can take any of your lead characters and replace them with an unspeaking person in a grey leotard, then you have a problem with them, and if, as a writer, you think that likeability is the main trait a character should have, then you should go read some more books.