Are Likable Characters Important in Women’s Fiction?

Women

 

When the moderator of a recent women’s fiction panel asked me if I expected to be friends with the protagonists in the women’s fiction I read, I had the oddest reaction: my mind went blank. Madly scanning my mental spreadsheet of great fiction in an effort to be truthful, in front of an auditorium full of avid readers I would have been happy to impress, I could suddenly recall no protagonist in any book I’d ever read. Could I think of characters who were compelling, closed off, quirky, troubled, clever? Sure. But I had never thought to sort any of them into the column titled “friends.”

Since then, I’ve concluded that whether or not I like a character has never been relevant to my enjoyment of her story. I do not read to make friends, I read to expand my perceptions of what it means to be human.

Apparently that’s not true for everyone. A woman in my book club didn’t read our last pick, book club favorite Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s best-selling The Language of Flowers (which has a 4.5 star rating with over 3600 reviews on Amazon), simply because she’d heard the protagonist was weird. Come to think of it, our club members did agree we’d like to be friends with Jacqueline Winspear’s series character Maisie Dobbs, although her generally enjoyable story didn’t leave us with a lot to discuss.

Readers might even all-out hate a character—I’ve heard that said about Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—yet still come away from her story with new insight. We all have good and evil impulses, and characters such as Amy can help us recognize them in ways that can make us feel uncomfortable. This is not a bad thing. What keeps any of us from becoming raving sociopaths? It’s a great book club question.

In The Far End of Happy, my novel based on true events releasing next week, my three point-of-view female characters must make unwelcome choices and face shameful secrets while enduring the twelve hours of a loved one’s suicide standoff. Such duress rarely inspires one to go out into the world to make friends, and when writing these characters, the question of their likability never once entered my mind. I sought to develop them with psychological consistency, and in a way that would put them in conflict over the issues raised in the story. Much more interesting than whether you liked these women would be the question of what you would do in their place. How might you sustain hope? Another great book club topic.

My take on the issue of character likability is no doubt colored by my former long-time role as a dance critic. I’ve never felt that whether or not you love a work is the most interesting focus for discussion. The arts are subjective by nature. The very words you use to describe something will suggest whether you liked it or not because opinions cannot be avoided.

I’m also not so sure that whether or not you liked a character is a measure of her worth. After all, we want our characters to do the thing we all fear the most—to change. We want to learn from their mistakes and grow wiser while we escape unscathed. Yet is any permanent change ever the result of a painless process? Not in my world. We readers must share in the protagonist’s humiliation, shame, and grief so that the power of story can work within our souls as well. That discomfort, in fact, keeps us reading—our desire to reach the resolution can become an almost physical need.

So do I hope to make friends with the characters in the fiction I read? No. I care much more about whether I am moved to think about life in a new way. If I am, the literature achieved its goal.

I think I’ll stick to making friends because of books—through the writing community, fellow readers I meet online, and those I get to know over wine and snacks at book club—where interaction with real people discussing a character’s difficult journey will expand my ways of thinking and make me feel more fully alive.

What literary characters would you like to be friends with? Is character likability important to your sense of a book’s worth?

 

 

Guest post contributed by Kathryn Craft–with additional credit given to Women’s Fiction Writers. Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, Kathryn loves any event that brings together readers, writers, wine, and finger foods. She is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Contact Kathryn through her website, or she’d love to connect with you on Facebook or Twitter.

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41 thoughts on “Are Likable Characters Important in Women’s Fiction?”

  1. I don’t read much of what’s traditionally called ‘Women’s Fiction,’ but I think the question can be asked about every genre.

    The protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but it makes a book much easier to sell if he/she is. On the other hand, I read Gone Girl, and hated both lead characters. However, Flynn made the male protagonist sympathetic (if not nice), which helped.

    Bottom line – the protagonist doesn’t have to be nice, but should at least be interesting.

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  2. Great post.

    I always go by the Umbridge rule. I loved Anthony and Gloria Patch in Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful & Damned” despite their being some of the “least likable” characters I’d ever read. On the other hand, I was so frustrated by the character Dolores Umbridge, and by extension JK Rowling for inventing and writing her, that I lost interest in the entire Harry Potter series.

    You don’t need to like the character, but it can’t be unbearable to spend time with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you that I don’t read or write to make friends with the characters. In my last book, the one protagonist is rather unlikeable, especially in the beginning, and I’ve had readers tell me so. Yes, she purposely is a brat because guess what? They exist. Their are not so nice people in the world, and they aren’t always antagonists.

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  4. The characters’ likability is extremely important to me. I really can’t finish a book if I hate the characters. I don’t need to love them, but they need to be at least a little ‘nice’, for me to care what happens to them.

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  5. This was not a question I had ever pondered. It is very interesting however to delve into the thought and roll it around. Looking back, I can think of characters who I probably would have liked being friends with, but do I have to be friends with the protagonist to enjoy the story? That would be a resounding no. I enjoy well rounded characters that teach me something, or show me their humanity. I like the process of watching them unfold, grow and change – they don’t have to be likeable to ring true. To me at least.

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  6. Likeability: The bane of the artist’s existence. Characters should move the reader, whether or not they move at all. IMHO. Glad to see how self aware you were, such that the question itself pulled you up short. Society has taught men to consider women as extensions of themselves, instead of as legitimate Others. Men should not be faulted, initially, for reacting in such a way, but be admired for addressing their reactions. 😉 IMHO. Thanks for this. I really appreciate that you put it all out there.

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  7. Very interesting article. As a reader, I don’t have to love the main character and wish we were best friends; but I do want to find something interesting about her. Something compelling that makes me want to know more about how she ticks. I’m sorry your book club member didn’t read The Language of Flowers. That was a really good book and the character was interesting. I hated both main characters in Gone Girl, but I wanted to know more about the train wreck of who they were.

    So…all of that to say that I agree with you. I don’t think you need to fall in love with the characters to walk away thinking it’s a great book; but there has to be something in the characters that you find interesting. Maybe not interesting enough to wanna be friends, but interesting enough that you might enjoy a conversation with them on the street.

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  8. Reblogged this on Mitzi Flyte and commented:
    There are some memorable characters that I didn’t like and still remember (even fondly since they are fictional) like Mrs. Danvers. The good in us resonates with the good in certain characters, as does the bad.
    Thanks for the great article and making me think…more,

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  9. I want to say that it’s more important to have realistic characters that people can understand, but if I don’t like at least one of the characters in a story I can’t really get into it. Thing is likability is immeasurable. You won’t know if your characters are likable until reader approve or disapprove. It’s always a gamble.

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  10. I agree. I don’t need to be BFFs. I like an interesting character, a relatable character, a flawed character. Someone who captures my attention and grows through the arc of the story. “Unlikable” is not a deal-breaker for me. That’s probably why I write so many characters readers want to slap. 😉

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  11. I’ve read books where I’ve really loved the main character and thought what it would be like if they were real! However, I’ve not really considered having any as a friend! Neither do I read or write with that expectation in mind. I enjoy reading many stories and like characters to be interesting, whether they be the protagonist or antagonist! Plus, the story needs to be good.

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  12. For me, a character doesn’t have to be likeable, but I have to find SOME way to connect with him/her. I had trouble with Silence of the Lambs, because I didn’t get ANY feeling for Clarisse. I hung in there because Hannibal was so interesting, and so was the kidnapper/antagonist. I liked Jorg, in Prince of Thorns, even when he did horrible things, because in context, the other people around him did worse things. If I can’t connect with some character, I probably won’t finish the book.

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  13. It’s an interesting question. I want to be engaged with the protagonist or “somebody” in the novel. I hardly ever think of a character as a possible friend. I’m currently reading Flaubert’s, Madam Bovary. I can’t think of one person in the novel I “like.” But I love the novel.
    Having said that,I do enjoy being engaged, being interested in what happens to the protagonist…will she pull through sort of thing. The Girl on the Train, a novel I couldn’t put down because the protagonist, an alcoholic and deeply disturbed young woman, fascinated me. I wanted her to survive. I liked her, but in real life…no way.

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  14. There generally has to be one likable character in a book for me to get through it, however there have been exceptions. I have talked to people who have to love the main character or they don’t like the whole book.

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  15. Well, please don’t forget Scarlett O’Hara! Courageous, yes; likable, not so much. Still, she was an interesting study in character–a product of her upbringing and the times–but not an endearing protagonist.

    Readers often relate to characters the same way they relate to the male and female genders. You might have a reader who loves your hero but hates your heroine or vice-versa. When weighing the likability factor of any character, you must take this discrepancy into consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG, I was about to write the same thing! I loved Scarlett O’Hara (in the book – I didn’t think the movie did her justice.). She was the ultimate survivor and I admired that about her. I don’t think I would be friends with her, but she would be an interesting guest at a party….

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  16. Truth: I don’t read much women’s fiction because I find I don’t like the characters. (There aren’t enough nerds…) So I guess that’s my answer.

    If I can answer the question innocent of genre, I do like to “like” at least one character. Doesn’t have to be the protagonist. Doesn’t have to be someone I could be friends with. But I’ve begun many books only to find there’s no one who meets my definition of “decent,” (it’s not a prudish definition). I can’t get interested in the story, so the book gets discarded.

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  17. I think there is a fine distinction between liking a character and wanting to be their friends. I am sure most will say Hannibal Lecter is a fascinating character, but none would want to share a coffee with him.

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  18. I think there’s a big difference between liking a character for the way they function in a story and wanting to be friends with them in real life. Case in point, I love Scarlett O’Hara but I don’t think we’d be pals. Good characters don’t necessarily need to be likable.

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  19. I am like a sponge when it comes to posts like this.
    I allowed my sister to read on of my stories and she requested I give a character at least one redeeming quality.
    I do not recall ever wanting to be a characters friend. Your reference to Gone Girl was good and one I connected with. I felt betrayed by Amy, having related to the fake girl only to turn around and be mocked by the very character I was so easy to identify with. Great writing. Hated the character.

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  20. When I read the initial question, Elizabeth Bennet immediately popped into my head. I’d certainly love to know her. She was irreverent, stubborn, prejudiced, and altogether likable. This just goes to show that a likable character doesn’t need to be necessarily 100% nice.

    My next novel has 3 female characters whose stories are told in tandem. One of them is sharply intelligent, capable, and impatient with others. Some of my beta readers have told me they don’t like her at the beginning. Yet, she’s the character who goes through the most change. I purposely made the other two main characters nicer in an attempt to balance #1’s acerbity.

    It’s very interesting to read all your comments. This is a great topic.

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  21. This is a great question! I don’t have to like the female characters to enjoy a book. They definitely don’t have to be someone I’d want to be friends with. Your reference to Gone Girl is a perfect example. And I think flawed and sometimes unlikable characters that make bad choices are the best kinds.

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  22. Such a thought-provoking post.

    I am catching up on some classic children’s/young adult classics I managed to miss as a child. One of them is Anne of Green Gables. I love her world view, but such incessant talking, I think, would drive me crazy! I think I would get along better with Emily in LM Montgomery’s Emily series.

    As I reflect on this question, I think I DO I need to like the female protagonist to the extent that by the end of the book, after all the issues, conflicts, good and bad choices, her life has moved forward in a way that I can relate to and feel positive about. But we don’t have to go out for coffee!

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  23. Recently chastised myself for writing a female character as too likeable. I realized that if her character were male, I’d have written her far differently. After slapping the sexism out of myself, I rewrote her in her straight up, boss bitch glory. Worked!

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  24. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I think all fiction books should have likable, non-likable, even a hateful person, but more importantly they should be relatable. I’ve stopped reading books because I could not relate to the characters. They had nice descriptive phrases describing them, but none of them seemed more than just words on a page. I did not want to bother reading more on the off chance it might get better.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I enjoyed Kathryn’s guest post. Lots to think about – as a reader and as a writer.

    The main characters in the Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins aren’t particularly likeable but they are compelling. Yes, I do come across characters I’d like to have a glass of wine or a cup of tea with and get to know as friends -but I think the most important factor is whether as readers or writers we ‘re dealing with characters who are, of course, flawed but who’re also interesting and deserving of our precious time.

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  26. If I really don’t like a character then I tend not to like the book, unless said character is being made fun of in a satire. If i’m neutral, but the character is interesting and makes relatable choices, then it’s a book I’ll stick with. Love interests have to be likable ’cause otherwise you’d be all “What is wrong with you?”

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