Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Likability Factor

It's true in real life, isn't it? We all want to be liked. It's human nature, to want people's approval, to gain people's good opinion, to want to be valued by someone else.

So, what about in fiction? Should we, as writers, consciously strive to have our main characters be likable?

Yesterday, I posted the link to a book called Save the Cat! I haven't read it yet, but apparently, it adheres to the philosophy that readers must CARE about the characters in order to turn the pages. That characters must have some sort of likability factor.

I agree with that philosophy, but as I look back on fiction, I'm a bit conflicted. I start to wonder if this "likability" issue is more of a MODERN philosophy. Here's an example. Honestly, I hated Mr. Darcy (I realize I'm terribly alone in my way of thinking, here). I personally considered Darcy to be arrogant, distant, dour, and downright rude. Sure, he had reason to be, as we find out at the end of the book. But even finding out "the truth" never stopped me from disliking him. In fact, if Pride and Prejudice hadn't contained the spunky, lovable characters of Elizabeth and the entire Bennett family, I'm not sure I would have continued with the story at all.

Another example - I teach Steinberg's "The Chrysanthemums" short story to my students each semester. It's a classic. It's "serious literature." So, I teach it. But, honestly, I'm not crazy about the characters. Not any of them. The main character, Eliza, is miserable and unhappy and wears a chip on her shoulder the entire time. Her husband is semi-likable, but he's only seen in about 10% of the story. And the salesman who takes advantage of Eliza's good nature is not only unlikeable, he's positively hate-able, by the end.

So, that brings me to modern literature. I think the tide has turned, regarding how important likability is, in modern fiction. If I start reading modern fiction and can't stand the main character - if he/she is irritating or has very few redeeming qualities - then yes, I do believe I would stop reading the book. Because I wouldn't CARE what happens to the character, whether he/she lived or died.

Ultimately, I think that's the true litmus test - asking yourself, "If this character fell off the face of the earth in the next chapter, would I even care?" If the answer is, "No," then I don't know that the book is worth your time. But if the answer is a passionate, "Yes!" then I think the book is absolutely worth your time.

As I type this, I'm re-thinking the focus of it -- perhaps instead of a "classic fiction vs. modern fiction" issue, the likability factor is more of a "serious literary fiction vs. less-serious commercial fiction" issue? Hmm....

So, what do you think? I'd love to hear your opinions. Is likability important? If so, how important? And do you see it as more of a modern trend, or is it something that should relate to all literature - literary, commercial, classic, or modern?


  1. I think for the average reader that may be quite true. However it does not apply to me. It does not matter how much I like a character, it is extremely unusual for me to put a book down and not finish it for any reason. I just like to know what happens next. If I don't care what happens next, then we're in big trouble.

    It's funny, because I feel that way about Twilight. I was curious to see where it was going to go, but I positively hated most of the characters (especially Bella and Edward) and I found very little to like about the book. However, I read the whole (excruciating) series simply because I wanted to know what happened next.

  2. Yoda - interesting points. I love your candor. I, too, wasn't crazy about the Twilight characters, but read on anyway (haven't finished the series yet, but plan to), just for the sake of finishing and seeing "what happens." But -- it's taken me months, rather than weeks to do so. I think maybe if I cared more about those characters, I'd have more invested in the book and would've read the series much faster?? Not sure...

    You make an interesting point - that plot, the "what happens next," can also be extremely important in the will-I-finish-this-book scenario. Something for every writer to think about!

  3. Hmmm to be likeable, do I think it's important? I think it might be... maybe not likeable but intriguing. Take Mr. Darcy for instance, you didn't like him, but I found his arrogance intriguing, I wanted to know why he was so rude, if he would have died off I would have been upset wondering why he didn't stay. So the character has to be interesting enough to want me to stay tuned to know more about them.

    Love this post!!! Brilliant!

  4. Hi Jen - I see what you mean, about Darcy's arrogance being intriguing (wondering what made him "tick," what happened in his past to make him so arrogant).

    So, basically, even if it's not absolute likability in a character, there still should at least be a "something" about the character that intrigues the reader, keeps them reading, keeps them interested. It could be more a matter of intrigue than sheer likability...

    Thanks for your comment!

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  6. There has to be a 'likability factor' in order for me to continue the book. If I want to know 'what happens next' then the writing is good and the author knows how to keep a reader interested.