Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.
Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?
When I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.
On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.
This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.
*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.