Do characters need to be likable?
This is an age-old question that frequently comes up in fiction writing. Does your narrator or main character need to be likeable? If he or she is not likeable, will readers turn away from your story, or at best find it less appealing than they otherwise might?
The short answer that those of us who teach (and who can be in defensive mode about our own fiction writing) usually give is an emphatic no, characters do not need to be likable. They only need to be interesting.
But I still find myself interrogating this question from time to time, most recently when I read a new story by a friend and colleague—someone whose fictions I greatly admire. I also, about the same time, read a related article in Poets & Writers. “The Darkness Within”: In Praise of the Unlikable” by Steve Almond discusses what he characterizes as “one of those disputes into which writers will continue to pour their opinions and anxieties.”
Indeed, I’m still questioning whether the lead character in my recent novel gives too many readers pause because they take an immediate dislike to him. (The book is pH: A Novel, and the character Ray Berringer, a marine biologist, has multiple personality and behavioral flaws. One person, who may or may not still be my agent, told me she couldn’t get past the first part of the book because she found Ray to be a jerk and didn’t want to spend time with him.)
So what’s a writer to do? We know that, in fiction, only trouble is interesting, and only conflict gives an arc to your story. A story only is a story if characters get into trouble, the trouble rises to a crisis, and then something happens to resolve it. It’s pretty hard to create a compelling story if the protagonist or narrator is not complex enough to behave badly at least some of the time. My character, Ray, is flawed by intention (mine, not his) so that he can both get into sufficient conflict with others and grow, in the end, into a better version of himself. What kind of story would I have if he was immediately a good guy, a hero, a role model? What’s interesting about that?
Case in point: one of my favorite all-time books is Nabokov’s Lolita. No one would say that Humbert Humbert is likeable. He’s pompous and manipulative at the start, and indefensible as a child abductor and molester. Yet I find him utterly compelling as a character. I’ve read this book repeatedly, each time coming away with a different and growing understanding of human pathology. I can understand that some individuals are so stunted and self-deceiving that they victimize children. I also believe the book has given me greater empathy for everyone involved—for what it is to be human—on any side of the cruelty we inflict on one another. There’s a pivotal scene when Humbert stands on a mountainside and hears the happy voices of children playing below—and realizes that Lolita never had or would have such a voice, because he stole her childhood. This scene breaks my heart every time I read it or even think of it. This heart-breaking seems to me a good thing, since the circumstances live safely in fiction as opposed to real life.
As Almond argues in his P&W article, we read not to find friends (though we may) but to find life, “in all its possibilities.”
In the case of my friend’s story, I admit that I was initially put off by the meanness of the narrator. But he was interesting. Why was he mean? What was his relationship to his wife and community? I wanted to know. I kept reading. I never liked him, but I began to understand his circumstances and why he might be having a hard time. Once again—understanding and empathy. That’s the job of literary fiction. I don’t think it’s too grand a claim to say that reading and writing about complex characters, whether we “like” them or not—can make us better people.
There should be no question that what our country and the world need now is a lot more understanding and empathy.
Nancy Lord, Alaska Writer Laureate 2008-10, is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books including, most recently, pH: A Novel. She teaches in the UAA MFA program and the Johns Hopkins graduate science writing program, and she is regularly a member of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference faculty. Her website is http://www.writernancylord.com.