I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

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’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen 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.

8 thoughts on “I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks”

  1. I tend to disagree with what Ms. Wood said. If you like to read books that relate to you, it definitely does not mean you are lazy or immature. I think it is important for characters to be, if not relatable, then at least realistic. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were ones with believable characters. So what I’m saying is, in order to enjoy a book, it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike the characters, or even relate to them. You just have to have a basic understanding of where the characters come from and why they do the things that they do.

    1. I wonder if Charlotte Wood was being deliberately provocative when she used the words “laziness and immaturity” to describe readers (and to be fair to her, she was referring to adult readers, not teenagers). Apart from that, I think I agree with you, and we both (mostly) agree with Ms Wood – that characters need to be real.

  2. I think this is a real problem in YA literature. I’ve had a book rejected recently – one of the things the publisher said was that the main character wasn’t likeable (actually, I liked her. Viva Jane Austen!)

    Also there’s a pressure for characters to be good looking. I once had a female character with hairy arms. My editor said, on the ms ‘Joanne, I don’t think our readers will find this an appealing image.’ I cut it. (This was ages ago – I’ve been writing a long time.)

    Adult books are a bit different – you can get characters like the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground who is loathsome, and doesn’t even attempt to get people to like him. Actually, it’s hilarious. But still, many adult readers still want the character to be their best friend.

    But in YA, people do like to relate – so characters tend to be the sort of popular girls that everyone likes. I kind of like weird loners, myself.

    1. There seem to be all sorts of unwritten rules for YA novels – one is that the main character must have a girlfriend or boyfriend by the final page, or failing that, have developed a large group of supportive friends and relatives. That idea that everyone has to be good-looking is especially annoying (although I don’t see why hairy arms would have any effect on a person’s attractiveness). I think there’s still a place for weird loners in YA, though – Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, for instance.

      And I’m sorry to hear about your book. I hope you can find another publisher for it (if that’s what you want), without having to turn the character into something fake.

  3. I think all the above is why we’re writing YA and children’s books instead of for adults. I can’t enjoy or get anything out of a book where I don’t care about the characters. They may or may not be “likeable” but I have to care. Adult books will be about “beautiful language” instead of beautiful story or “beautiful characters”.

    *I* liked Sophie and loved her two stories. Can’t wait to see the next book!

    1. Hi, Sue! Welcome to the blog! Yes, I think the emphasis on strong stories and characters is one reason YA is so rewarding to write and read. (And thanks – I like Sophie, too.)

  4. I wonder if the difference is in the author’s intent, and in the message they are trying to communicate. There are some books we will battle through, because the book is primarily about the language and the themes (Wuthering Heights comes to mind). But when I pick up a Young Adult book, my expectation is generally that I will be entertained. Informed as well, but in general, entertainment is the goal. And you don’t pick people who make you miserable to entertain you, right?

    1. Hello, Kit, and thanks for commenting. Yes, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is certainly a book filled with unlikeable characters – and ‘battle through’ was an apt description of my experience, when I read it as a teenager! I much preferred ‘likeable’ Jane Eyre.

      Hmm, not sure I always expect to be entertained when I read YA, though – that makes it sound as though YA fiction is guaranteed fluffy entertainment, when there are plenty of dark, depressing YA books out there. But yes, when you want to be entertained, you need characters who won’t make you miserable – and YA is often very good at that!

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