Discussion: Likeable Characters

Posted October 29, 2018 by Nicky in General / 19 Comments

For ages on Goodreads I had a really annoying follower who would always complain when I reviewed a book on the basis of liking or not liking the characters. Honestly, I’ve lost track of why they felt that was the case, but it was based on some idea of how one should actually appreciate books, and particularly given the fact I was an English Lit student (and later graduate, and then postgrad).

Friends, it’s bullshit. You can like or not like a book for whatever reason you want on your own time. Personal reading for pleasure has nothing to do with an academic assessment of a book’s merits — if you even think that the job of academia is to sit in judgement over whether a book is good or not (which I think would’ve had the entire literature department at daggers drawn if it was truly what the study of literature is all about).

So yeah. I’ll come right out and say it: likeable characters are a big part of whether I enjoy a book or not. They don’t have to be perfect (that’s just boring), but mostly I do need to be able to root for them, care about what happens, and not just be waiting for them to hurry up and die. It’s part of what adds tension to a story. If you don’t care whether the characters live or die, that climatic scene with the big bad doesn’t mean very much.

There are books you like in spite of characters — and characters who are terrible people but engaging anyway, too! Likeable doesn’t have to mean in the right, either. And characters definitely don’t have to be relateable in the sense of sharing experiences with me: what’s important is that I can understand why they think and feel the way they do.

So, how about you guys? Characters? Or could they be cardboard cutouts for all you care?

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19 responses to “Discussion: Likeable Characters

  1. ‘Likeable’ is a loaded adjective, freighted with the sense of a subjective response (‘subjective’ being another loaded word). I think it comes down to this: we as readers want to have some empathy with the protagonist or protagonists. However despicable they may be (I’m thinking of Patricia Highsmith’s characters, such as Ripley) they have to have some redeeming features. If at the end they slide down the wrong side of the wall that’s a tragedy but it doesn’t mean you’ve invested in them for no reason.

    Novels, I believe, are quintessentially humanist artefacts—that is, they have human beings at their core. They may have a political or other agenda, but books like 1984 appeal because they have a sympathetic character like Winston at their core.

    Come to think of it, I can’t think of a piece of fiction that has an absolute bastard as its lead, can you? (I can think of a few national or corporate leaders who see themselves as the heroes of their own stories, but no fictitious individuals.)

    To answer your main point then, underlying my appreciation of a novel is definitely a likeable character. That’s why I’m conflicted about unreliable narrators (like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve just reviewed) because I can’t believe their self-justifying account: they’re like those narcissistic far-right figures who peddle fake news for their own advantage.

    • Yeah, but “relatable” was the other word that popped to head, but again didn’t express quite what I wanted. (Although, if someone always wants to read about people they can sympathise rather than just empathise with, that’s up to them and there’s no need for people to be a snob about it. I don’t get why people keep making reading into something you’re… not meant to enjoy?!)

      Absolute bastard as a lead… some crime fiction, for sure. The Murder of my Aunt by Richard Hull. The protagonist is just unbearable. And I did not love it for that reason.

  2. arbie

    I don’t strictly have to like a character, but I do have to sympathise, otherwise I’m going to struggle, unless the book is short. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the primary character, either.

    • Yeah, likeable is a limited sort of word that for me included “like to read about”, rather than “like as a person”, too. Likeable characters in the background do it too.

  3. I’m with you on this. I have to care about the characters or I find it impossible to engage in the book. If I hate every character, then what’s the point in reading it y’know? Sure, sometimes a character drives you mad but everything else makes up for it, or you’re meant to hate someone but if they all drive you mad it’s DNF time! When I review a book, I always state my opinions on the characters as that is a huge part in my enjoyment of the book or otherwise. That follower sounded really annoying!!!

  4. For me there has to be at least one character I can relate to on some level, but I do like it when an author creates a number of diverse characters good, bad and indifferent, and the more depth to the character the better, whether I like them or not. It’s about whether or not they feel real and believable.

    So that’s a big NO to cardboard and paper thing characterization.

  5. Imagine Song of Ice and Fire without Tyrion Lanister, Arya Stark, or, to a lesser extent, John Snow, Daenerys Targaryen,… it would be almost unreadable, no matter how good the writing and how twisted the plotting. It would all be like Feast for Crows, the low point of the series.

    Having watched Hocus Pocus last night, I also find that likeable can apply to child-murdering witches, so long as they are *fun* to be around. A good scenery churning villain with a sense of fun can be as delightful as any good guy.

    So yes, likeable characters are a must. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading a story? It’s something that grimdark and “gritty” novels are especially prone to get wrong. Or serious spy thrillers and some noir fiction, where often every character is a mysterious blank slate so blank and so mysterious that there’s little to feel for. (Those sorts of books then substitute erotic attraction for empathy, while the gritty grimdark crowd tend to take even the erotic stuff to a weird and unwholesome place, with abusive and incestuous stuff instead of simple lust).

    If everyone in a story s a shitty human being or a psychopath, it’s not a fun story to read. If that’s what someone likes, they might as well go to the Tory party’s annual convention and hang out with the attendees. I, for one, prefer my entertainment a little less bleak.

    • often every character is a mysterious blank slate so blank and so mysterious that there’s little to feel for

      Ahaha, yes, I have a big problem with that in some of the noir-ish books I’ve read.

  6. Grégoire

    i don’t know if that answers your question but there are very interesting stories (big ideas for ex ) but all the characters are so “flat” that without their names, i could not remember them(make difference between them ?) And then, there are not very good stories (in my opinion) but with likeable characters i could “see” in my mind when reading even the bad ones ! So , for me, a really good author is one who is able to mix the two : big ideas with vivid characters (And please , pardon my English I’m better at reading than writing…)

    • Definitely agreed! I’ve read bad books for fascinating characters, and abandoned fascinating ideas because the characters are flat or unpleasant.

  7. I can never finish a book if I don’t like the lead characters, at least somewhat. If I don’t care for the hero, why would I want to know his story? It has nothing to do with the quality of writing or the book’s literary merits. It’s very personal.

  8. I’ll die on this hill alongside you. If I’m not interested in any of the characters (I don’t have to _like_ them, but I have to be engaged by them _somehow_) then it’s a dry, dull read.

    …although saying that, I was utterly engrossed by The Little Stranger without particularly caring for any of the characters, and I’m still not sure how Sarah Waters managed that. I wanted to know what was going on, and I cared a little for Caroline, which was apparently enough.
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  9. Oh, I wish more people would read this! I need to like characters, or at least understand them in a book, otherwise, I don’t think there’s a point to reading the book if I can’t be invested in the characters.

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