Likable and unlikable characters in fiction: Claire Messud and Meg Wolitzer against commercial fiction writers.

What’s So Bad About Likable Characters?

What’s So Bad About Likable Characters?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 22 2013 12:33 PM

I Like Likable Characters

And I don’t like female novelists’ new method of dismissing other female writers.

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A relatable protagonist was not what Messud was after. The author has made clear how uncomfortable she is with the notion that readers or critics might think she writes on the popular side of her imagined popular/literary dichotomy. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Messud sounded positively dismayed when describing the success of her novel The Emperor’s Children: “I feel that I have an impractical and deleterious snobbery about the relation of literature to the market,” Messud says. “I thought, I’ve become the kind of crap you buy at airports!

But what’s wrong with the kind of books that are sold at airports? (It’s hard not to imagine aspiring or mid-list novelists tentatively raising their hands and saying, “Hey, if she doesn’t want her books sold at airports, please feel free to sell mine”—and frequent fliers pointing out that you can buy Jonathan Franzen in most major hubs.) What’s so bad about the kind of character who would make good company during a six-hour flight when you’re crammed in next to a narcoleptic elderly man who sprawls across your personal space, smelling of crotch and Ben-Gay?

As a writer whose main characters have been both praised and criticized as likable (this, in spite of one protagonist who spends chapters fantasizing about murdering her husband and making it look like a shaving accident), I had a complicated reaction to Messud’s rage. Messud sounds so fierce, so unassailably correct in her assertion that if you’re reading to make friends, you are Doing Reading Wrong. But while there are plenty of complicated, flawed, unlikable heroes in literature, it’s just as easy to rattle off dozens of characters who do, in fact, feel like friends: Francie Nolan, Anne Shirley, Meg Murry, Jo March. Offred and Clarissa Vaughn. Arya Stark. Billy Bathgate. Isadora Wing, Huck Finn. Every character in Anne Tyler’s books. Many of the women in Stephen King’s. Calliope in Middlesex and Quoyle in The Shipping News and Yossarian in Catch-22.

I don’t care if it’s supposed to be wrong. I will freely admit to reading books to find friends. I did it when I was young, and friendless; I do it now that I’m an adult, and my social situation is somewhat improved. Sure, I’ll stick with a compelling villain, or a warts-and-all portrayal of a real person (I stuck with Donald Antrim’s memoir, and the chapter he devoted to buying, and then returning, a $7,000 bed, which he then tried to link, metaphorically, to his dying mother). I will sit through Difficult Listening Hour, but I won’t deny myself the pleasures of a funny, frank, intimate take on being a mother, a wife, a woman whose dreams have been thwarted by her real-world responsibilities. If that makes me, somehow, a lesser reader or even a lesser human being, I think I’ll find a way to sleep at night. Not metaphorically linking my bed to my mother ought to help.


What bothers me about this latest flare-up is that it feels like just one more way for literary women writers to dismiss commercially successful women writers. It used to be a writer could just turn up her nose at chick lit, and say, “Oh, I don’t read those books, I don’t read books with that stuff on the cover, and I certainly don’t write books like that.” Only now that nobody seems quite sure what chick lit is, and everyone has recognized that authors—especially female ones—don’t always have control over how their books end up looking, a new code word is required. That word has become likable. Calling a novel’s characters the L-word doesn’t just imply that the author in question is writing like a girl; it hints that she is writing like the wrong kind of girl—a dumb, popular, easy girl.

So on the one hand, we have women writers who are insisting—repeatedly, at top volume—that their books are real writing, “serious literary endeavors,” and holding up their unlikable characters as evidence. On the other hand, we have writers being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales.

I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously. Most women writers don’t have it as good. Meredith Maran recently published a piece about women writers being pressured to make their heroines less raging and ranty, more familiar and fun. I’ve heard, for years, anecdotes about young women writers being told to “chick lit” it up—to make their leads less bitter and biting, more sweet and self-deprecating, or else no one would buy what they were selling. Authors are placed on one side or another of that pop/lit divide, and prohibited from using all the crayons in the box. They’re stuck with their particular color palette: pretty pastels if they write commercial fiction, and darker browns and grays to be considered literature.

Ideally, our shelves, and even individual books, should contain the rainbow. There should be room for everyone: for the lovable and the despicable, for Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter, for Bridget Jones and even the poor, scorned Ya-Ya Sisterhood. When a Wikipedia editor sequesters “female” novelists in their own private category, when publications like Harper’s and the Atlantic review one woman for every four men, women writers should have better things to do than rolling their eyes at each other’s endeavors. Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?