Do Characters Have To Be Likeable to be Alive?

As a newly graduated student and an ever pondering reader, I've been wondering about my reviews' critical character analysis'. For me, when I review a book, I always state my feelings towards certain characters. I've never thought too much of it, it's just something I like to know and hence I provide my readers with the same courtesy.

A while back, I came upon a great article by Greg Mortimer titled, "Why Likeable Characters are Beside the Point". Eureka! Why of course they are!

Looking back to the books I've been assigned to read over my school years, most of them are modern classics (minus Shakespeare but then, those weren't books per say...) i.e. Lord of the Flies, and The Great Gastby, etc. I've come to realize that they all feature very unlikeable characters. But if we read to find friends and like characters, then how have these books survived so long and why are they being taught at schools?


To this, Mortimer has a glorious quote from Claire Messud author of The Woman Upstairs. She says, "The relevant question isn't 'Is this a potential friend for me?' but 'Is this character alive?'"

I identify really well with this. I just finished reading The Great Gatsby for my senior English class and I realized some very interesting things. Daisy is a hated character for what she does. But she is real. To me she personifies the weak-willed people who will choose familiarity over happiness. She is the woman who had everything going for her and a fresh start awaiting her but she throws it away in fear. How many times have we been that person? I am that person every time a new opportunity is awaiting me that will take me away from what is familiar. This aspect scares the bejeezus out of me and hence, I am left behind. I miss my chance and if I were a character in a book you might dislike me as well.


When it comes down to it, humans are much more forgiving when it comes to real life. We realize people have flaws and while some flaws may be too big to ignore, others aren't. Taking this idea to literary characters and we aren't as forgiving. For instance, my friends with whom I read The Great Gatsby despise Daisy with a passion. Because of their hatred, they have come to see Daisy as a one sided, underdeveloped and an unrelatable character. I disagree, I don't like her but I see her importance. To me, she brings F. Scott Fitzgerald's book to life.


What do you think of characters? Must they be likeable to be alive?

-Mari

11 comments:

  1. Yeah, I get what you mean here. Sometimes characters are all the more interesting because of their flaws. And of course, interesting doesn't necessarily mean that they're likeable. Daisy is definitely a great example. I have to agree that her flaws make her more realistic (although not more likeable...)

    Also, I find it intriguing to consider how a character can affect a reader's opinion of a book. A really unlikeable character can ruin some people's experience of reading a book- regardless of whether the author intended them to be unlikeable or not. Interesting stuff.

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    1. I guess it all comes down to how intimate a reader you are. If you like to immerse yourself so much that you want to feel like your there instead of being on the outside looking in, then unlikeable characters might bug you more. I struggle with this sometimes.

      Unlikeable characters are the bane of all out existence. It's really hard to separate them from the story, it's a human thing and it's very much alive when it comes to judging books.

      -Mari

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  2. I completely agree, they don't need to be likeable to be alive. Daisy is definitely an unlikeable character, but she is alive in every way. She's flawed and that's what makes her seem so real. I don't think a character has to be likeable all the time, sometimes the best ones are the ones you kind of hate because they have more to their personality.

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    1. Defiantly. Characters that we love to hate are the best.

      -Mari

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  3. Of course you're right, and in a way it's obvious. But here's the thing: I have a problem with characters who aren't likable, and not too "real" either. For example, from the House of Night series, Zoey Redbird. She is so perfect and goody too shoes, she doesn't even swear! Idk why, as much as I like the series, she bothers me, it takes away from how good the books could be I think.

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    1. I agree. We've all read about some pretty horrible characters. At this point I think it comes down to the authors execution. Unlikeable characters are very different from badly made characters. Oh goodness, Zoey Redbird makes me pull my hair out.

      -Mari

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  4. There are unlikeable MCs for me who are made that way to make us realize social and structural issues, and there are unlikeable MCs who are unlikeable for the heck of it. While I appreciate and love reading about the former, as it gives leeway to many discussion and discernment that could be applied in real life, I don't really have much patience for the latter because it feels like there is no point at all. In any case, this was a really good opinion piece, and I agree with you all the way. Unlikeable MCs that at least represent a group of people in the real world are okay for me because that would make them easier to relate to, and the character development that will ensue will be aboslutely delicious.

    Faye at The Social Potato

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    1. I pin pointlessly unlikeable characters to the author and blame the writing. Needless to say, I can't stand that.

      -Mari

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  5. Great distinction. "Likable" is a problematic word -- but what we take it to mean is, we WANT to spend time with that person in this story. Doesn't mean we want to be friends with them, or want them to succeed, but they COMPEL us. They make us turn pages. And we LIKE that feeling. ;P

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    1. That's a great way of putting it. There definitely are many variations of feeling sone can have towards a "likeable character". The important thing is they prompt us to keep reading.

      -Mari

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  6. Completely agree. A character doesn't have to be relatable/likeable/sympathetic to compel me to keep reading. I find Daisy pretty detestable -- in fact, I find all the female characters in Great Gatsby pretty unsympathetic -- but she still feels real and I want to know what she's going to do to screw up Gatsby's life some more. The characters I lose interest in are usually flat and one-dimensional, so I quickly get bored with them. ...
    Thanks so much for stopping by! Jen @ YA Romantics

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