How Important Is Likability in Characters?

009Borrrrnnnn Freeeeee!

Yes, Jackson has discovered the Great Outdoors. And it is Good.

We watched an interesting movie last night, Tanner Hall. It’s a mediocre movie from 2009 with nobody particularly compelling in it. The ending however, is very nearly incandescent. And yes – you really have to watch the whole movie to get the ending. It truly arises out of the story in a way I didn’t expect.

It explored a theme I don’t see treated directly in stories very often. About forgiveness and likability. It’s about knowing someone has behaved badly and… letting it go.

There’s this old saw that we dislike in other people those things that we dislike in ourselves. I don’t know how true this is – or if there are any psychological studies to support it. I’ve experienced bosses who suspected me of cheating on things like time-reporting in the ways that I *knew* they did. I also know that I dislike in other people qualities that I’ve worked hard to eradicate in myself, such as narrow-mindedness, intolerance, lack of compassion.

I suspect that, in real life, our reasons for not liking some people are usually not well-examined and probably don’t have good foundations. A lot of the time jealousy plays in. Or that the person doesn’t do things the way we want them to. Or just plain irritation. The cases where we don’t like a person because they’ve actually done us an injury are probably in the minority.

But this is not true in fiction, right?

In the world of fiction, we feel very free not to like characters. In fact, we’re encouraged to outright hate the “villains” in a way that we’re simply not socially allowed to in real life. We also get to dislike the heroes and heroines of the stories.

This is something that comes up in romance All The Time. Whether or not the heroine is “likable” can be the key to whether or not the reader enjoys the whole story. I see debates all the time about whether heroines are likable for this or that reason. Now, typically the readers are female and the heroine functions as an avatar of sorts for them in the story. So, if the heroine behaves in a way that they judge to be wrong, it annoys them.

One romance writer who gets this reaction a lot is Victoria Dahl. I enjoy her books because her heroines feel so real – like a contemporary woman who might be my friend. And, like real women, they have flaws. They annoy their families. They have sexual histories. In one of my favorites, Talk Me Down (you might have to scroll down the page to find it – I have SPOKEN to Ms. Dahl about this), the heroine acted out sexually when she was younger.

And, boy, how the readers judged her for that.

It’s a funny thing about romance – somehow we all still see ourselves as these virtuous virgin feminine ideals. Even though, in real life, we’d never agree to that ideal.

Watching that movie last night made me think of my grandfather. He was an admirable man in many ways – raised himself up out of nothing, educated himself, became a wealthy man, then lost it all again. Alcoholism played a role in that. And hubris. He was unfaithful to my grandmother – a woman who’d first been his mistress – and ultimately left her for another long-time mistress. My mother and my aunts carry a lot of bitterness and anger for how he affected their lives. I remember him for giving me my copy of Omar Khayyam, teaching me to draw and for long walks after dinner when we talked about Interesting Things.

Is he likable? Probably not. In some ways, maybe, but if we reduced his life to a scorecard, he’d probably end up in the negative column. At the end of his story, though, I find that none of that matters to me.

I love and forgive him, anyway.

Maybe that’s what we mean, when we talk about redeeming a character. Good characters, like real people, have flaws. There’s no story if they don’t have something to overcome.

I suppose that’s true for us all.

14 Replies to “How Important Is Likability in Characters?”

  1. Well said. I also think that relatability plays into heroines in romance – if we can’t relate, have sympathy for, the heroine it will be harder to like her. Same side of a different coin? lol…excellent food for thought!

    1. That’s a good point, Christine – but what fuels that relatability? Do we have to feel the same challenges, to relate?

  2. Nicely put. I do like to have at least one person in a book or movie that I can root for. I don’t like it when there’s no one to care about if they make it or not. I want to relate on some level.

    1. Totally agree, Jillian – if I can’t root for someone, I lose interest pretty fast. But what makes us root for them, despite their flaws?

  3. Jackson is clearly Master of All He Surveys LOL.

    I created a secondary character that numerous readers have told me they want to either give a good talking to, or possibly even slap some sense into…but then they usually ask me when I’ll be writing the sequel about what happens to her next LOL. During the novel, she does do what you mentioned – redeem herself in some ways. She was fun to write!

    I liked what you said about your grandfather. I had a grandmother that was sort of similar, lots of less than good memories of her BUT some very sweet ones to balance out the rest. Another excellent post, as always!

    1. He sure *thinks* he is! That’s interesting about your secondary character. Sounds like you did a good job of redeeming her! That’s interesting, that readers have the impulse to give her advice. Well done, I suspect.

  4. You make excellent points, something we have been discussing. I have found that most wrong-doings stem from jealousy on the part of the wrong-doer; they lie, cheat, steal, intimidate, slander because they are jealous of others, but perhaps I digress.
    We need to like characters or at least end up liking them.There is another movie bugging me in the back of my mind that ended well and made the whole movie worth it; I only wish I could remember it right now..I had wanted to run out and buy it. I imagine that Tanner Hall made the same impression on you.
    People in life are flawed, as you say.I had a terrible relationship with my father but was upset when he died because he genuinely cared for my sons. There are other relatives who were kind to me and have my understanding when I know they had their problems.We take the good while acknowledging the bad. I think the Harry Potter books show that .JK Rowling showed the strengths of some major characters as she did their flaws,(such as James and Sirius’s treatment of Snape and house elves). I don’t think we have to smother our feelings of love when there is wrong-doing, nor do we have to cover bad traits because we admire a person otherwise. It doesn’t have to be either/or, good vs.evil. We should see the whole person as human… as we are.

    1. I tend to agree on the jealousy thing, Tonette. I need to mull that over more. I like where you went with this – seeing the whole person as human, fictional or real.

  5. I am weird when it comes to characters I like. I often like the bad guy more then the good guy. I think it has to do with knowing how it feels to be on the wrong side of the fence and can relate more to the bad guy and how he feels than the whiter than white hero. So yeah: relatability is more important to me than likeability in the sense of a cfaracter being ‘nice’. Give me a flawed character who does his/her best t make something of the bad hand they got dealt over the virtuous hero(ine)

  6. Great post! As a Christian, I feel that other Christians think I should ONLY be reading Christian fiction and virtuous people. I shouldn’t read books where people do naughty things or make bad choices. Why is reading about a fictional character’s story different than being friends with someone that had a similar life growing up? I strongly believe that you can love a person but not their actions or choices. We all make bad choices. We are all sinners. Why should the characters we read (and write) about be any different? I personally want a likeable heroine but I may not agree with everything she does. I think it is the motive behind her decisions that can make it or break it for me. Eve Dallas is one example. She isn’t an easily likeably character but when you understand why she acts the way she does, it makes sense. And she is growing and continue to mature as well. 

    1. Really great point on Eve Dallas, Amy! She has actually committed one of the greatest sins of all and it affects her whole being. I love seeing how she grows, and softens, as the series continues.

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