Kayla: Recently, I was middleman to a screaming match between my mother and my sister. My sister has recently taken to a TV show called Shameless, which my mother abhors because not a single character is a good person. I have not watched this show, so I have no opinion on it either way, but it got me thinking about the “likable character” debate. I asked my fellow Geekettes what they thought, and here’s what they had to say:
I’ve been thinking a lot about likable characters recently, since I just read the chapter in Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist that is all about that topic. Roxanne Gay seems to suggest that a character need not be likable, only interesting and complex. In fact, she finds herself drawn to more unlikable characters because they seem to be more human.
I know that I, personally, often find myself judging a work of fiction by how likable the characters are. It is definitely easier to get lost in a story with appealing characters that you can relate to without discomfort. However, I think there’s a lot more to good fiction than just the likability of the characters. I first became aware of this when my favorite show The Vampire Diaries spun off to create The Originals. Personally, I hate the character Klaus. And yet, I still find myself deeply invested in his story. Like Roxanne Gay was saying, Klaus’s flaws somehow make him more deep and vibrant of a character. There is something real and human and gritty in the way he sabotages himself and hurts others in the process, always destroying the things he loves. And I think encountering a character like that can force us to confront those ugly sides of ourselves. Because we are human, and we’ve all got a little bit of the unlikable in us.
However, even The Originals has at least some other characters who are more likable, and they perhaps are what roots us to Klaus’s story. So instead, I turn to what I feel is the most conclusive proof that likable characters are not necessary for a good story: J.K. Rowling’s adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. Honestly, not a single character in that story was remotely likable. Some were pitiable, and some weren’t even that. The Casual Vacancy is the story of a whole community of deeply flawed individuals whose poor decisions have devastating effects on their lives and the lives of those around them. And yet, Rowling’s skill as a writer somehow makes these stories deeply compelling and these characters unbearably real. While I wouldn’t say The Casual Vacancy was the most enjoyable read I’ve ever experienced, it was definitely a good story—in spite of, or maybe precisely because of, its unlikable characters.
For me, I cannot get into what I am watching or reading without finding one character I connect to. It happens to be the same for a character to hate. It helps get the adience more emotionally invested. You root for that ONE character you love, and you get angry when your least favorite does something annoying. For me, it isn’t always the character you’re supposed to like that I do. Sometimes, you just have to root for the villain every now and again.
I don’t think it’s necessary for a story to have at least one ‘likable’ character. There is no way for a character to be wholly likable to an audience – someone finds them too perfect, someone else thinks they’re too boring, etc., etc.
What I DO think is necessary is having at least one RELATABLE character. There needs to be some aspect of the character that we can believably latch onto, otherwise the author risks losing the suspension of disbelief. I’m going to use a TV example since that’s sort of my bread and butter. I can name a slew of TV shows whose first episode centers around a character who is ‘new’ and learning the ropes of that world just as we, the audience, are discovering it. To name a few: Rose Tyler (Doctor Who 2005 revival), Caitlin Todd (NCIS), Holly Gribbs (CSI), Brandon and Brenda Walsh (Beverly Hills 90210), Elle Greenaway (Criminal Minds), Skye (Agents of SHIELD), and Eve Baird (The Librarians).
These kind of audience-proxies are only one type of relatable character, however. Other types of relatability involve personality and morality, but I want to point out that a consumer of any text (visual or written) doesn’t need to have the same traits as that character to find them “relatable.” They just need to recognize something in that character feels real so that the story can continue to hold their interest.
I have a difficult time watching or reading anything if not one character is likable, meaning having some redeemable quality. In high school, I hated The Great Gatsby, and have never attempted to reread it because every character is a liar or only interested in money, which is in fact the point of the book. So while books like that make their point very effectively, it’s not something I enjoy. I do think it’s necessary to have stories like this in the world, but as I now have my degree in English, I see no reason why I should ever have to read a book I don’t like for the rest of my life, and I don’t like books that lack likable characters. I think people forget they’re entitled to a personal preference, and to have a differing opinion.
What do you think? Need likable characters or love to hate fictional baddies? Weigh in in the comments!