Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Caring about characters: the follow-up

A few days ago, I asked on Twitter and both of my blogs: What makes you care about a character?

As I started reading the answers, I realized that for a lot of people, caring about a character means liking the character. Several people mentioned characteristics that I think of as relating to likability: sincerity, goodness, bravery, grace, nobility of character, thoughtfulness, and compassion were all mentioned.

But I know that plenty of people enjoy books with unlikable characters--and movies, too. (There's even an expression for this: characters you "love to hate.") Sometimes we just can't stop turning the pages, in spite of the nastiness of the characters (cases in point: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and GONE GIRL, among others). And while I was mulling this over, I had the good luck to encounter Roxane Gay's essay on character likability in her collection BAD FEMINIST: "Not Here to Make Friends."

Gay quotes Claire Messud in a PUBLISHERS WEEKLY interview in which Messud challenges the whole notion that character likability is even relevant: "'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?'"

Roxane Gay builds on that idea and covers a lot of wonderful territory in this essay, which I recommend. She addresses the limits of likability, and what lies beyond it. She also uses a line I love, reminding us that characters must generally experience plenty of conflict and trouble if they are going to carry a story: "It's no wonder so many characters are unlikable, given what they have to put up with."

I agree in part with Claire Messud and Roxane Gay. I do think that likability isn't everything for me; it isn't all I look for. And many of the answers I received here online reflected that, too. Readers look for flaws; they look for characters who want something and go after it and earn it. Characters who are too perfect or too lucky are boring.

At the same time, I don't completely reject the power of likability. A likable character can ratchet up the impact of a book. Claire Messud says we read to find life, not friends, and I know what she means. Part of me says, "Yes!"

But sometimes I do read to find friends. Sometimes I read to find a laugh. Sometimes I read to learn, other times to escape. Sometimes I want a book to make me think. Other times I only want it to amuse me. Sometimes I want truth, no matter how ugly; other times I need beauty more. Sometimes I am drawn to a well-written book with a character I'd run screaming from in real life. Other times I crave that emotional connection with a truly likable, admirable character.

Again I'm reminded how varied books are, and readers. Even the moods and needs of a single reader may change over time.

Thank you to everyone who sent me a comment about this topic. May you all find what you seek in books!


  1. While I can root for likable characters, I also can be drawn into flawed characters, if they're written well. I read for the reasons listed in your post, and I also read to be a "fly on the wall" for a certain setting or among a group of characters that intrigue me.