There’s a debate a friend of mine and I have regularly while we’re discussing books. Sometimes, she really dislikes a book I recommend (which totally breaks my heart, by the way, because, let’s face it, sharing a deeply loved book with someone is like sharing a secret, hidden part of yourself, and if that person doesn’t like it, it’s like a rejection of the worst kind), and more often than not, her reason for not liking the book is: the main character was so unlikeable. Now, this friend of mine has awesome taste in books and I totally respect her opinions on most things; but, on this one point, we always just agree to disagree. My argument is that the presence of an awful, hateful character doesn’t mean the book itself is awful. And besides, why does a character have to be likeable anyway?
I understand the impulse to want to read about characters we like, whom we can emotionally invest in and root for. It’s comforting, and it makes it easier for us to put ourselves in the characters’ shoes and live exciting lives vicariously through them. These characters may reflect the selves we wish we were, the people we hope we can someday be. For instance, I love Elizabeth Bennet because I totally wish I had her wit and sass, her intelligence and the grace with which she recovers and learns from her mistakes (the fact that she gets Mr. Darcy certainly doesn’t hurt either). I like Harry Potter because I admire his selflessness and heroism, his unending ability to love even in the face of hatred. It’s like Freud’s theory of identification – he described identification as the process by which an individual develops his or her personality by emulating a person he or she admires and idealizes. Freud had talked about parents and other significant figures present during a person’s childhood in a person’s life but since then his theory has been applied to the appreciation of the arts. You want the character to be likeable so that you can more easily identify with it.
But reading only about characters we like and can identify with considerably reduces our reading choices. Reading is about expanding one’s worldview, about looking at things from a different point of view, about empathizing with someone entirely different from yourself. This can sometimes mean getting into the mind of seriously messed up people. I mean, hello, remember Catherine and Heathcliff? Yes, I know, their love is transcendental and epic but these are two really twisted, self-destructive people whose relationship is quite toxic and unhealthy. But does that mean Wuthering Heights is not a brilliant book? Of course not. The book is about so much more than just the likeability of the characters, and if you write it off just based on that, you’d be missing out.The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is certainly insufferable and annoying, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the book. I recently read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and the characters are all pretty much monstrous, but I enjoyed the book. There’s the clever unreliable narrator technique which is so deftly handled, the chilling tone of the story, the hopeless tragedy of it all. And I think the characters’ monstrosity actually added to book’s allure. After all, isn’t this the best part of literature – that it represents the whole spectrum of human behaviour?
Last year, literary author ClaireMessud was asked in an interview why the main character in her book, The Woman Upstairs, was so unlikeable. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,”the interviewer said, and Messud (understandably, in my opinion) flipped out. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” she asked, and then said, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” We read to find life, and to discover fully realized characters as full of foibles and faults and contradictions as real people.
Messud’s response stirred up quite a fervour in the literary circles of the West, with other authors sharing their own views about characters and likeability. Messud herself said that the question of likeability is a gendered issue, with female characters being expected to be likeable way more than male characters. I think this is true to a certain degree. We studied Emma by Jane Austen in a literature class, and the likeability (or non-likeability) of Emma was debated by my class fellows at great length. But we did not have this discussion when we were studying the Crusoe’s character in Robinson Crusoe, and it certainly never came up in our discussions of Healthcliff.
Regardless of the issue of gender, the debate about the connection of the likability of characters to the quality of books is a contentious one. I still believe that reading about unlikeable characters can be as fulfilling as reading about characters you love and admire. Here are a few books which I loved, that had characters I wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with in real life:
- The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman
- Americanah by ChimamandaNgoziAdichie
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Leaving Tangier by Taher Ben Jaloun
Author Margaret Atwood also gave her two cents when the Claire Messud debacle occurred, and what she says sums up nicely what I feel about the likeability of characters: “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.”