Likeable and unlikeable characters

Recently, I picked up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Then I put it back down again. Sharpish. The reasons I’d put it down were that I did not like, empathise with, or understand either character, and that I was irritated at how clever the book was trying to be. Of course, it’s very hard for authors to write beautifully without being accused of cliché, so sometimes the metaphors and analogies used in modern literary writing are increasingly convoluted or off-the-wall. I have sympathy with this, but I can’t stand books where the writing seems smug at its own originality. The main reason I put it down, however, was the characters. When I was inside Amy’s head, reading her perspective, I felt my brain melting at her inane, narcissistic narration; when I was inside Nick’s, I was impossibly frustrated by the unpleasant way he spoke about his wife and the people around him. I also felt that I was being asked to view ‘rich white people problems’, like only having enough money to rent a large and luxurious house, as deeply important. Aggravating. Life is too short to read books I’m going to hate, so I probably put it down two or three chapters in, with no regrets.

When I logged on to Goodreads to delete it from my to-be-read list, I flicked through some reviews out of curiosity. There was so much hype surrounding it when it first came out that I wondered what I was missing. Reviewers seemed polarised on the subject: it has a 3.93 average rating on Goodreads, which seems to be an amalgamation of five-star raves marred by the odd one-star rant. The thing that I found most interesting was the vitriol directed at people who gave negative reviews on the basis of the characters. People were frequently accused of being ‘illiterate’ because they had allowed their perceptions of the characters to affect their appreciation of the books. It shouldn’t be about whether you enjoyed the book. It should be about whether it’s a good book. (Expletives edited out, partly because they weren’t very imaginative but mostly because my mum reads this blog).

I’m not going to discuss Gone Girl any more in this review (although my thoughts on some of the other issues can be found in a SPOILER-CONTAINING footnote below), partly because I haven’t read it but mostly because this question of likeability is constantly raised in the online book world, normally in snide AA Gill-esque asides, and I think it’s very interesting.

People have argued that women who write likeable characters are failing at being feminists, that people who want to read stories with likeable characters are doing it wrong, that likeable characters are incompatible with serious endeavour. One of the Goodreads commenters I encountered turned into a spitting cobra when someone dared to suggest that they didn’t like the book because it ‘wasn’t relatable’. The response was ‘that’s the worst reason not to like a book ever’.

Goodness. I think the first thing to say is that I read for a lot of reasons. I read to learn about the world. I read for pleasure. I read because it helps me to understand the way that other people’s brains work, which is something I struggle with a lot. I read for fun. I read to make me think. I read because I need to stop thinking for a while. I read to understand events and phenomena that are too complicated to learn about through a cursory glance at the headlines. And yes—sometimes I read because I’m lonely. Sometimes I read because I’m sad. Sometimes I read because I really, really need to laugh. In this way, I am rather like a human.

I have criticised books before because I couldn’t stand the characters. I think, perhaps, my definition of ‘likeable’ characters can be boiled down to this: I want to at least understand them and their motivations. Their perspective needs to be at least partly relatable. This is not to say that books with primarily unlikeable characters can’t be extraordinary. Gone With the Wind, Vanity Fair, and Wuthering Heights are all excellent examples of books that have chiefly unlikeable characters, yet still tower above most of the books I’ve read as literary achievements. The difference between these books and Gone Girl is that the reasons presented for the characters’ actions and thought processes, their motivations, are clear and understandable. I would not like to have dinner with Scarlett O’Hara, but I still feel that tug of understanding for her in my chest even as she does downright selfish and childish things. Mitchell presents Scarlett’s motivations as twofold: her devotion to Tara, and her love for (first) Ashley and (then) Rhett. She doggedly pursues her own happiness at the cost of everyone else’s, but because we understand what drives her, and why her character is the way it is, we can still sympathise; she’s still on some kind of quest, even if we disagree with her methods and her motives.

I also don’t think that this is a gender issue. I don’t like Becky Sharp; I also don’t like Jos Sedley. Both of them are interesting characters. I am never asked, by the narrative, to agree with their actions, only to understand why they do them. That makes a big difference, and I think it is why the first-person perspective in Gone Girl is damaging. I am not just being asked to understand the characters, to enjoy the story in spite of its protagonists; I am actually having to share headspace with them. If I am going to allow characters to play about in my brain for weeks, I want those characters not to be psychopaths.

And, as for feminism–feminism is not a race to the bottom. Perhaps it is true that people don’t question angry, unpleasant, bitter men the way that they do women with those qualities, but we’re not fighting for the right to become that way too. Instead, we should probably be criticising the cultural constructs that justify violence if it’s at the hands of a jealous man. Write novels with ethical, thoughtful, considerate male characters; write men who are motivated by world peace or the deep-rooted desire to become a dad or by the ripple effect that a single act of grace has had on their lives. Responding to the stereotype that men are angry and aggressive and selfish by saying ‘look, look, women can be violent psychopaths too‘ might make the world more even, but it won’t make it better or more beautiful. If there is no purpose and no beauty in what you are writing, then why are you writing it?

It has to be said, before I close, that suggesting ‘likeable’ characters immediately strip a work of all its literary merit is utter claptrap. Dorothea of Middlemarch is one of my favourite fictional people. It does not, in any way, diminish the power of the novel. It enhances it, because I care so desperately about what happens to her that the injustices, oppressions and triumphs within the pages of the novel loom large and stark in my imagination. So it is with many of Tolkein’s characters, with Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Gregor in Metamorphosis. Had I been seeing these plots through unsympathetic eyes, I might not have learnt half so much. I wasn’t wrestling with the characters–I wasn’t fighting them the whole way through–so I was able to focus on the things that the authors actually wanted me to learn.

 

***

FOOTNOTE CONTAINING GONE GIRL SPOILERS:

I did read the synopsis for Gone Girl, because I’d heard there was a huge twist and I was curious. I just have to say that writing a fictional female character who fakes being a victim of domestic violence and rape is revolting. Actual victims of domestic violence and rape constantly face accusations of making it up. Faking it for attention. We do not need stories that add to that voice—we need stories that challenge it.

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3 thoughts on “Likeable and unlikeable characters

  1. What an excellent post. You’ve touched on a lot of issues that can affect our reading of a book, and the problem with the freedom on GoodReads of letting ANYONE and EVERYONE put in their opinion – and shout down others. I love the debate and discussion that comes with book reviews, but I sincerely wish people would think their arguments through and present them not only properly but also calmly. Thumbs-up on this post from me. 🙂

  2. I really like your point of view here. In the last 6 months I have read The Woman Upstairs ans Tampa. Both written by women, both with unlikeable female protagonists. I loved The Woman Upstairs because Claire Messud gave me enough to feel sympathy and understanding for her lead, but Tampa was just hideous. No depth, no insight, all sensationalism.

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