Over the past month or so, I’ve noticed a number of online discussions in the publishing world revolving around the importance of a character’s likeability. Depending on who you ask, it may be seen as a hallmark of lazy writing, or even a sexist insult. Likeability is bad now? Huh. News to me. So what about all those rejection letters and contest feedback and contest feedback scores that say otherwise? Well, that’s the thing: the anti-likeable camp comes from Serious Fiction, and most of us poor slobs aspiring writers getting the rejections and mean contest results are trying to break into popular fiction of various genres. It goes without saying that these worlds are different, and the expectations of their readers are different—not that they are better or worse, just different. In all this, I believe there are things both sides of fiction can learn from this controversy.
The Serious Fiction Fallacy: a lot of the criticism of likeability by authors in the literary establishment seem to misunderstand what likeability means (or what I think it should mean, anyway) with respect to fiction. In real life, people who are likeable are nice. They’re moral. They help people. They don’t cause a lot of trouble. But as we know, fiction is so not real life. If a character is truly nice, and moral, and good, it takes a damn talented author not to make him or her insufferable (I’m thinking of the goody-goody throw-up-in-your-mouth characters of a certain massively successful male author in particular. Spoiler alert: he’s not that good.) In fiction, likeability is related to how well we as readers can empathize with a character’s motivation. To me, I think likeability is best equated to relatability, not whether we’d want to cosign on a five-year lease with the person.
The Genre Fiction Fallacy: judge much? This is especially true of female main characters, double for heroines of romance and women’s fiction. OMG, are we hard on our heroines! If they’ve had a sexual past before (or during) the story, they’re sluts. If they are virgins, they aren’t “realistic.” If they’re sweet or shy, they’re doormats. If they are snarky or sarcastic, they’re bitter. It seems like no matter what attributes you give your heroine, there will be haters—and that’s not even touching physical descriptions. I think this might stem from the theory that our readers put themselves in the role of heroine in romances. I’m not sure how true that is. I know I don’t read that way, personally. But anyhoo, maybe that’s where the general vibe comes from. Here, likeability seems directly related to whether a heroine seems like friend material—and that sells the whole genre short, in my opinion.
When “nice” is synonymous with “likeable,” one side sees writing those types of characters as pandering to the lowest common denominator, and the other side sees it as necessary to sell books—and we get yet another means for one type of writer to distance themselves from and disrespect the other. Let’s just throw the concept of nice out of the equation, shall we? Let’s replace it with interesting, conflicted; crazy, yet full of conviction. After all, aren’t the most beloved characters across fiction from high-brow to low maybe not ones we’d want for friends or roommates, but ones who make us stay up reading until three o’clock on a weeknight because we just have to find out their secrets and what they’ll do next?
Have you, as a writer, ever run afoul of these expectations of likeability? And as a reader, who are your favorite characters—and where do they fall on the scale of likeability?