Should Characters be Likeable?

Earlier in the week I reviewed Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It was one of those novels that I couldn’t help but feel had waited for me until it knew that it was the right time, that I was in the right head space. That I needed it.

But the truth is, the book had me riled before I even started reading. In his introductory essay, Something About Maria, David Thompson spends some time dwelling on the question of Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, and her likeability.

Even with no knowledge of her at that point, I could only engage with the debate in the form of some serious side eye.

Are we REALLY still talking about this?

FYI, this blog post is about gender equality in being shitty.

Let me explain myself.

When a male character acts like an asshole, but as the protagonist of the story we are drawn to him anyway, he is called an anti-hero. A Don Draper. Logan from Veronica Mars. Every male lead in every detective show ever. He’s awful, but sexy. Shitty, but funny. We want nothing more than to bury our heads inside of his chest in the hope we might find some answers in the heart beating there.

(But we never will. But we’ll never stop).

What we DON’T do is spend endless hours, think pieces, youtube videos (youtube comment sections) talking about whether he’s ‘likeable’.

Nah, only female characters get that treatment. Female characters like Maria.

Because, as a female lead character, she breaks the rules. She isn’t concerned with whether or not the reader ‘likes’ her. She isn’t quirky and relatable.

We don’t use anti-hero so much when talking about women. We have other words: Bitch. Crazy. Slut.

An anti-hero can be all these things. But in a female character? Rather than a study of human character we find it kind of… icky.

Alida Nugent talks about this a lot in her essays on feminism, You Don’t Have To Like Me. She writes that:

‘As women, we place a lot of stock into being liked. We are supposed to be liked, to be agreeable, to be demure. We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. Saying you’re a feminist means you want more. Women and Oliver Twist should never want more! It’s not ladylike (or orphanlike). We are supposed to be happy. Say yes. Nod Along.’

We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. I think that’s the central problem. When we encounter these women, these unlikeable women, something feels wrong.

Rather than engage, we turn away in the hope such action will put those women back in their boxes.

It won’t.

The truth is this: female characters don’t have to be likeable. They don’t owe that to you.

Women can be cute and smart and funny and dark and damaged and terrible. They can contain as many multitudes as a man.

And we should read about all of them.

So can we PLEASE stop discussing whether or not female characters are likeable? There are so many more interesting questions.

 

 

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Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

24. Loves a good story.

9 thoughts on “Should Characters be Likeable?”

  1. This is a great post and it really got me thinking about my own preferences and possible biases…I suppose for me, characters don’t have to be likable, but I LIKE them to be likable–I enjoy a book more when I like the characters. That being said, I personally find male anti-heroes unlikable as well. I just finished reading Wuthering Heights for the first time and I disliked Heathcliff just as much (if not more) than I disliked Catherine. And I disliked Linton just as much (definitely more) than I disliked Cathy. So for me, it’s less of a gender issue and more of an “I just like to like the characters I’m reading about” thing regardless of gender.

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  2. Oh yes I hate the sexism surrounding this topic. However I do talk about whether characters are likeable or not…but I talk about it equally between female and male characters. And I also guess it depends on our definition of what does make the character likeable. But agh, the standards books often can put women too as opposed to men is really disappointing. At least not all books do this though!

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    1. Yeah! There are such different standards! It’s frustrating to read. I totally agree with you that more and more books are avoiding the dumb cliches these days, but I still feel there are a lot of the writers out there who could – and should! – be doing a better job.

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  3. Gosh, I’m so glad I picked today to read your blog and read this post. YES. I had actually wrote this massive discussion about this very topic last year, but lost it when my computer crashed. But I totally agree and you nail everything. I think there’s this very strange expectation that we should like characters… I mean, liking a character helps us enjoy a book so much more, but sometimes unlikeable characters reveal things about ourselves and our perceptions of others. I think another issue is that sometimes writers aren’t well equipped to write unlikeable characters, so they just make them flat-out unappealing or do too much to antagonise them. Gah.
    But this is such an amazing and thoughtful post. Thank you so much for writing this. ❤

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    1. Thank you! You say the nicest things 🙂

      Yeah, sometimes unlikeable characters can teach us so much more about ourselves and other people. I think part of the problem is the whole demanding characters be relatable thing. Again, sometimes that’s nice but other times I think it’s good – and necessary, really – to read a person who’s thoughts and experiences are completely outside the range of your own. It’s a different conversation than likeability, but still an important one I think.

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  4. I actually think I use anti-hero more with female characters than male ones–but that’s probably because I read more books with female leads. Olivia Pope from Scandal immediately comes to mind as does Adelina from The Young Elites.

    I am a reader who will put down a book because I don’t like the main character (again, usually a female). I can read a book where I don’t like the lead so long as I understand the character. There has to be some logic and rationale to their actions.

    But your post got me thinking about “strong” female characters. So often I think we define strong female characters as the ones who can physical kick-butt and forget about the intellectuals or the women struggle and do the best they can. We see to be particularly hard on the ladies and that’s very unfortunate.

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    1. That is such an interesting point about strength. I suppose so many of the characters we think of as strong (Buffy, Jessica Jones, etc) are also actual superheroes (or slayers). Even Liv bashed that guy’s head in with a chair one time.

      When I say ‘unlikeable’, I guess I do mean characters like Olivia, or Abbie these days. People who are driven by things most of us aren’t necessarily, like power or narcissism or whatever. Or just… emotional damage. Have you ever watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? The main character on the show, Rebecca, is often called unlikeable but that’s kind of the point. Most of the time on that show the person who hates her most is herself.

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      1. Yeah, it seems like those unlikable females are those who are in “non-traditional” roles for females. Like the career driven ladies or ones not actively pursuing a family. I guess the ones who have a more “masculine” approach to life. (Look at Olivia for example and how she would be viewed if she was a man instead of a women).

        I’ve never heard of that show. I’ll have to check it out.

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