What We Talk About When We Talk About Like*

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*Sorry, Raymond Carver. I couldn’t help myself.

I have issues with the word “likeable” [1].

While wrestling my thoughts into written form for this post, I even looked up the definition, in an attempt to get clear what I was actually trying to communicate. (I have this problem a lot. ”I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it!” *wails*) And I’d like to be clear up front that I’m using the word in the context of “pleasant, friendly, and easy to like” [2]. I’m not using ‘likeable’ as a synonym for ‘sympathetic’, and I’ll explain why.

I see this word come up occasionally in reviews, usually in reference to main characters. Some people find a book hard to engage with if they don’t like the main character(s). And I also need to be clear that I’m not here to criticise that particular stance, because each to their own and all that. I don’t believe there’s one “correct” way to read or review a book; reading is subjective. What I am saying that is it’s not one my personal reading requirements, though I am interested in understanding why it is for others, or what “likeable” means to them.

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Here’s the thing: I don’t always see myself as a “likeable” person. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I won’t air them all here. But I struggle daily with both wanting to be liked (there is a firmly-ingrained streak of the people-pleaser in me that runs deep) and being aware that “likeableness” is not something I owe to every single person. Sometimes I feel pressure to adjust the way I interact with other people, because I’m conscious of “likeability” as a sort of social currency. Or social lubrication, to put it in a less mercenary but much more greasy sense [3]. And whether that pressure is entirely self-generated and perpetuated or not, it’s still there. It’s a fact of my life [4].

A while ago, I was angry. I have never considered anger my defining personality trait; if anything I think I lean on the side of peace-making and I’m generally quite a calm person. That is, until my anger walked right up to me and punched me in the face.

I wasn’t really angry at anyone specifically – mine was more of nebulous, free-form anger that followed me around and caused me to grind my teeth in my sleep and develop tendency to jump at every noise because I was so wound-up and edgy. I found myself clenching my fists at my sides and thinking in CAPS LOCK and bellowing like an injured wildebeest at the most innocuous of interruptions. I had previously thought that I was made up of 2 parts melancholy, 1 part mildly humorous – which made me a sad person with a sense of humour – but I’d moved from being sad to being really cranky at what felt like warp speed.

Frankly, I was not a fun person to be around at that time.

What I’m trying to say with this is that I’m not always likeable. I’m have emotions and days when I’m as easy to be around as a sack of weasels. And I’m okay with that. Because I don’t think that invalidates my feelings, or my personality as a whole. It’s just one part of me.

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Which makes me wonder what we mean when we say that characters are “unlikeable” – specifically female characters. Is it that they have failed some litmus test of worthiness, and that they are less deserving of compassion and empathy? Do we mean that we find them unsympathetic entirely, and there is no redeeming facet of them of person? Or do we just mean that we find them personally disagreeable, that we probably wouldn’t be friends with them if we met them in real life? And if that’s the case – does this make their stories any less valid than those of characters we might find more personally palatable?

As a teen, it was made abundantly clear to me that I was supposed to supress those emotions that made people around me uncomfortable. Because emotions are difficult and sometimes people don’t like difficult. Especially not difficult girls. I grew up in a society that said I shouldn’t be the “emotional girl” because “guys” don’t like that. (“Guys” was some hazy, abstract concept that seemed to encapsulate an entire gender in one massively sweeping generalisation, natch). It was drummed into my subconscious that girls with too much baggage are hard to like, and by extension, anything too confronting needed to be smoothed over, concealed, softened.

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I’m older now, and mostly I’m comfortable with saying an articulate “nuts to that!” (Or something less quaint, depending on how riled up I am). And something that helped me to do that is identifying with girls in fiction. Difficult girls, prickly girls, sensitive girls, angry girls.

Off the top of my head, some of my favourites are:

Parker Fadley of Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers
Holly Yarkov of Holier Than Thou by Laura Buzo
Saba of Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Jill MacSweeney of How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr
Min Green of Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
Taylor Markham of On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

I think I love those girls for the very fact that they don’t fit the dictionary definition of “likeable”. I love them because they’re complicated and occasionally abrasive and brimming with raw emotion. They have fully-realised personalities and voices that are astringent or unapologetic or passionate. I love them because I see tiny parts of myself in them, and it reassures me that no one is ALL likeable ALL the time!, and that is okay. I don’t want to deny these girls the right to own their emotions, just because they’re not always pleasant, or just because they’re unsettling.

Do I come across characters I would hesitate to throw a glass of water on if they were on fire? Of course. Fiction would be boring if I didn’t. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to a “bad” book.

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So I try not to use the word at all, because I feel deeply uncomfortable with the connotations of calling someone unlikeable, and deeply uncomfortable with dismissing a book on the basis of how likely I am to offer them a BFF-charm[5]. But that’s my personal interpretation of the word, and other readers will naturally use it differently to me.

At the end of the day, I don’t require main characters to be likeable, because it takes more than that for me to find them compelling. I wanted to be challenged by characters, and I also want to identify with them, or at least understand them. I don’t think those are mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, I think the opposite. Reading about a fictional character who reflects something I have struggled with in myself is affirming in a way I find hard to articulate. As is understanding why someone acts the way they do, especially when it challenges my own ingrained expectations , or is contrary to own instincts.

I think these characters – the ones that defy the strict definition of “likeable” – deserve to have a voice and be heard, even if that voice might be difficult to hear. Just as something in me bristles at the suggestion that I should edit my personality for public consumption, all the sadness, cynicism and self-consciousness cropped out, that same part rejects the idea that these characters should conform to a rigid standard of niceness.

I guess I’m trying to say is that a character doesn’t need to be “likeable” for me to like them.

What does likeable mean to you?

What makes an protagonist compelling for you?

Are you sick of reading the word likeable yet?

Sorry [6].

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[1] Likeable v likable. Oh no, I’ve opened a can of grammatical worms in my brain! (I mean grammatical can of worms, but I like the sound of it the other way).

[2] “likeable”. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/likeable (accessed February 18, 2013).

[3] Is there any good way to put that? Everything my brain comes up with sounds revolting.

[4] You know what’s dumb? I actually angsted a lot over posting this. Was it too personal? Was it too ranty? Were there too many feelings in it? Then I thought, ’you know what? FEELINGS are how I roll. Deal with it. Because I give myself daggy pep-talks sometimes.

[5] Granted, I have a shelf on Goodreads called “No-BFF-Charm-For-You” – though it should be noted that I use this shelf for books I don’t particularly care for, as opposed to specific characters. Because I have book-best-friends as well as people-best-friends, like a total dork. (Nor should it be assumed that I only hand out my figurative BFF-charms only to “likeable” people.)

[6] I’m not sorry.

29 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Like*

  1. I love ALL of the female protagonists you mentioned, Rey, as well as the ones Hannah Harrington writes. I really love this post, though. For me, I always wind up liking a character MORE because they’re unlikable from the start. When we first meet them, they don’t seem to be instantly friendly. With some books, the narration is simply so humorous that it’s impossible NOT to like the character who is narrating, but I always love the girls who are harder to like, mostly because that’s how people are in real life too.

    Like you, I am an extremely unlikable person. I’m not particularly shy, but I don’t go out of my way to make friends. I have a humor that can only be described as bitterly sarcastic, although thankfully my friends find me hilarious. I am quiet, and introvert and although many of my friends are the kind to go out of their way to help strangers, I am only fiercely loyal to those I know and trust very well. I’m far from perfect and what I love about the protagonists you mentioned is that they start out imperfect and end imperfect too. It’s not that they go through transformation to become angelic women. Instead, they find people who can accept them and appreciate them for who they are and show them the better side of life. And I love that.

    I always hate that women – both in life and literature – have so much of a stigma upon them. They can’t wear short dresses for fear of being called a “slut”, they can’t express too much emotion for fear of being told they’re on their periods, etc. I’m glad that there are characters who expose the more realistic side of girls, though, and although I have nothing against likable characters – or people who like to label characters as likable – I think it’s too general of a statement. If a character is simply likable, they are missing something; some inner depth is just lacking.

    Anyway, I feel like I ramble on your blog ALL THE TIME so I’m sorry about that, but I just LOVE both the post and the pictures you added to go along with it. Very beautifully written! :)

    • Thank you! And I love your comments – you’re not rambling at all :)

      First of all, I find it incredibly hard to believe that you’re extremely unlikeable! But I understand what you’re saying – I’m also a very introverted person and while I don’t consider myself shy, I don’t go out of my way to be around people all the time. I don’t really like, nor am I good at, small talk – and this occasionally gets interpreted as rudeness. I’ve been called “cold”, “prickly”, had people say comment on my lack of overt displays of affection.. which was hard to take at first, because deep down, I want to be liked. And it becomes a cycle that makes me even more self-conscious and stand-offish. I felt so guilty for not being able to be what I thought everyone wanted to be. I tried to be “up” and happy and extroverted all the time, and frankly, it was exhausting.

      So I like characters that don’t fit the dictionary definition of “likeable”. Like you, I’m not saying that being personalable is a bad thing – but I think characters should be allowed to display the full spectrum of emotion without being written off or labelled. I particularly hate how girls are subjected to this. That girls need to fit a certain set of characteristics or type of behaviour in order to be considered “marketable”.

      Girls in books don’t owe it to readers to be pretty, or nice, or virtuous or whatever other expectations get foisted on them. At the end of the day, I would much rather read about a character that felt authentic, than a character that felt written to please, or be liked.

  2. This was such a thought provoking post! I am guilty of calling characters ‘likeable’ and ‘unlikeable’ but after reading this I will take extra care to describe the characters in other ways. There are characters out there that act like actual people and do the imperfect things that people do. I have been forgetting that.
    Thank you for the amazing post! Oh, and I love the pictures you use. Did you take them?

    • Thank you! I guess what really interests me is understanding why a reader likes a particular character. I like to hear why characterisation worked or didn’t work for them. And would they feel the same way in real life?

      Yes, I took the photos :) They’re all pieces of street art from around Melbourne.

      • I normally like characters who have loud personalities. Like Evie from The Diviners or Kami from Unspoken. I also tend to like characters that come off as mean but the author is able to get the reader to get to know them and love them for who they are. Chelsea Knot from Speechless is a good example.
        Why can’t my little town have street art as awesome as this?

        • I’ve heard a lot about Kami – I think I need to read Unspoken soon! And I agree with you on Chelsea Knot (also Harper from Saving June). Hannah Harrington writes character development well, I think.

          Melbourne is a very cool city :) It has a lot of personality!

          • I haven’t read Saving Jun but it is on my wishlist! I have heard many things about Harrington’s skill on character development which was what got me into Speechless.
            Melbourne is a city that I want to visit one day! All that great street art would make taking a walk a lot more interesting!

  3. I absolutely adore this post, Reynje, and I’m GLAD you posted it! For me when I talk about characters that I ‘like’, I’m not talking about characters that are ‘likable’. In fact, I find most ‘likable’ characters to be incredibly flat and boring. I like prickly, I like issues, because this gives those characters a reality and depth that I can recognize as existing in real people. Of course, some major bitch mode in me has always hated ‘likable’ people, so maybe I have issues (actually, it would be more accurate to say that I’ve always been incredibly annoyed with people who must be nice/happy all the time to please everyone because it just seems so unreal to me). I don’t think I’ve intentionally avoided using the term ‘likable’, but now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure I never do use it. It’s too subjective, particularly when I like difficult. =)

    • Yes to everything you just said! Above all, I just want a character to feel genuine, whatever their situation is. A character that’s “likeable” all the time can feel unrealistic to me. I get particularly riled up when this is applied to the girls of YA – I feel like there’s a level of scrutiny and expectation that teenage girls are subjected to that is particularly harsh and unforgiving. Actually, I read a great post on tumblr last night about the criticism leveled at a young actress because she didn’t behave the way people wanted her to on the red carpet – if she didn’t smile and genuflect for everyone around her, she was labelled and written off as a miserable bitch. I have a huge problem with that. And I’m rambling again, but I definitely think it’s worth examining how we think about girls in YA – what “rules” (for want of a better word) we apply to them and why we do it..

      And thanks for your great comment!

  4. This is a great topic — thanks, Heidi, for tweeting this post.
    I don’t find “likable” to be that meaningful a term, because it’s so subjective. Another blogger I follow did a very interesting post on her professor’s dislike of the word “relatable” as applied to a literary character:
    On Having Relatable Characters
    It’s sort of the same issue: what I like and/or relate to in a character might not be the same for other readers. And I agree that being “likable,” especially for a female character (or person), is often tied up with being “nice.”
    I am very fond of so-called “unlikable” characters, including some that you mentioned. I like prickly characters, flawed characters, outspoken characters. That said, I don’t like all characters equally. I find some characters extremely irritating, to the point I will quit reading the book.

    • That’s such a great post, Jen – thanks for sharing it! I’m guilty of using the word “relatable” – but I completely agree with the comment that articulating why we relate to a character is so much more important than just saying they’re “relatable”… which really doesn’t mean anything.

      And I agree with your thoughts on “likeable” being tied up with the word “nice”. I remember being in Year 4 and having my teacher tell the class in no uncertain terms not to use the word “nice” in our writing. She called it a “wishy-washy” word, which I think was her way of trying to explain that it doesn’t really mean that much. Or that there are better ways of describing a person. These days, I have a number of issues with the word “nice” (of course I do!), not just because it’s a bit inspid, but also because it implies a level of expectation. Why should characters have to be “nice”?

      Also, it’s great to find fellow un-likeable character fans :)

  5. Every time I use that word I type it out initially as “likeable,” notice the little red squiggle, delete the e, think…”REALLY? LICK-able?,” google it, and then finally make peace (for the seventh or eighth time because I have a horrible memory) with the fact that that word is just spelled weirdly. At least in American English.

    We read How To Save A Life in my book club recently and that was one of the questions that I asked everyone – “is it important to you that main characters be likable?” I was surprised that every single person in the meeting said no! I know that for me, it’s never been important. I think that characters should feel real, and I always hope to find some thread of connection with characters but that’s not really a requirement.

    I’m glad you posted this too! I am a deeply unlikable person who makes a constant, tiring effort to be likable and then usually fails miserably. I figure I have like 30-40 more years before I can just give up and be the cranky old B*tch that I am on the inside. Watch out, grandkids!

    I love how honest you were here and those were some really wonderful pictures too.

    • It’s such an awful looking word! Both seem to be correct for Australian English, but likable looks so much like lick-able to me too!

      Authenticity trumps likeability for me any day, too. Quite a few of the books I’ve read recently had complicated, difficult main characters and I find myself warming to them much more than to so-called “nice” characters. I really liked How To Save A Life, but I remember seeing that some people really didn’t care for Jill. That’s fine, of course, I respect their opinions – but it was an odd feeling because it had never occurred to me to think about whether I “liked” her or not. She just was. She was the character, this was her story.

      Struggling to be liked is a constant challenge, but one I think I’m slowly dealing with. Sometimes we put enormous pressure on ourselves to be a certain way, thinking that it’s what other people want from us.. but I’m figuring out that that’s not always the case. Also, I think I’ve already given up :) I have more than a touch of cantankerousness about me!

  6. This is such a fascinating post, Rey, and one that I always think about (both in reading and writing).

    I always think the unlikeable (wait, how isn’t that a word?) . It annoys me when authors (or myself, actually) go out of their way to make a character be “nice” and “likeable” that the prickly characters always get a character assassination right at the end and what was once an interesting and -shock- different character does something that is totally out of character.

    I love your list of protagonists but there are some that I didn’t really like (looking at you Holly and Saba) but I can understand why you included them. I can’t believe you missed off Friday Brown! I didn’t get on with her very well but she is the embodiment of this post! :)

    Can I add one unlikeable protagonist to the table? AND IT’S A BOY. Joe from Keren David’s When I Was Joe. RAAAAR that character, but he needed to be like that or the story wouldn’t work.
    And of course, all of MM’s heroes can be classed as unlikeable. They all do some terrible things (actual quote from one of our emails: Why is Lucian being such a twat?!?! And hello, Jonah, you heavy handed oaf.) but we all love them, unconditionally, don’t we?

    Do you think unlikeable male characters get off easier than the ladies do? DISCUSS.

    Also, I like you just fine. :)

      • P.S. I’m glad you like me. I like you too.

        P.S.S I’m so glad you kept those Lumatere emails. I’m sure there’s something in there about a fleece and caterwauling that better not ever see the light of day, Jo ;)

    • YES! This is why I keep you around, because you have all the EXCELLENT THOUGHTS!

      I do think that “unlikeable” male characters get an easier time of it than female characters, unfortunately. That’s changing, but
      I still think that a girl exhibiting challenging traits is more likely to be criticised than a guy, particularly in YA. I have absolutely no evidence to back this up other than a gut feeling, but it seems to me that if females in YA are too nice, they’re Mary-Sue’s; if they’re too abrasive, they’re unlikeable. I think it’s too easy to fall back on those labels without really examining why we feel that way.

      MM is definitely a master of the complex character *looks at Froi, Evanjalin, Quintana, Lucian, Jonah, Will, Tara, Tom etc etc* And honestly, isn’t that what makes her stories so incredible? That her characters are so human and genuine, no matter how they’re behaving?

      I keep hearing good things about When I Was Joe. Must add this. I need more complex YA boys in my life.

  7. You know when you, Trin and I were chatting the other night and you mentioned the word likeable and your dislike of it, I immediately searched our blog for the word… and I am guilty of using it, oops! But, not too often and it doesn’t always mean that I didn’t enjoy a book just because the character was tough. Don’t get me wrong, I do like a cute character, but it would get boring if they were all like that and some of my fave characters have been the ones that people love to hate (eg. Bindy from The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie and Penny from Love-shy).

    And I love how personal your posts are and I am plenty unlikeable most of the time, I kind of hoped we all were ;)

    • I think we all have those words we sometimes fall back on, because we know what they mean to us :) I know I do it. I often use certain words or phrases when I could probably explain myself better.

      Bindy and Penny are such great examples of this! Love that you mentioned them. I remember disliking Bindy so much.. then by the end of the book, just wanting to give her a hug.

      I worry that I’m a bit TMI sometimes.. but my words seem to come out that way :)

  8. I’ve been meaning to sit down and read this since I saw everyone tweeting about it yesterday and I’m so glad I finally did. The whole notion of liking something/someone is completely subjective and thinking about it now, it’s seems ridiculous that a term is used that decides whether a character has the potential to be liked by every reader. And I’m sure I’m guilty of using it myself on many an occasion ;)
    But yes, the ‘likeable’ characters also tend to be the more boring to read. But this has got me thinking whether this is because it’s more difficult to write an engaging, interesting, ‘likeable’ character. I dunno. But the difficult ones are nearly always the most memorable and rewarding for me as a reader.

    • Thanks Anna! I like the idea of a difficult character being rewarding. I mean, I guess they’re not always, but I do feel more engaged as a reader if I’ve had to work harder, or traveled a more difficult journey with a character. Does that make sense? I agree with you on the memorable thing too. I read a book recently where all the characters were nice people, but after a few days I couldn’t really remember anything significant about them. I like the characters that stay with me, that hang out in my head after I’ve finished a book.

      The subjectivity thing is interesting too. Someone mentioned a character I didn’t have on my list, and it made me laugh because it hadn’t even occurred to me that she would be a candidate for the list. So I guess “unlikeable” means different things to different people too.

  9. Love, love, love this post.
    For me, characters don’t have to be likeable all the time, but I have to be able to connect with them in some way. They have to have some redeeming quality that makes me root for them.
    Like Taylor, for instance, is fierce and strong even if she is prickly. I love her. I love flawed characters.
    But then there’s books like The Slap, where every single character was awful and I didn’t care about them at all, didn’t connect with them on any level, and hated reading their stories. They didn’t have any redeeming qualities for me. They deserved each other.

    • Great point, Belle. I find myself liking complicated, difficult characters because there’s generally something about them that I connect with.

      I haven’t read The Slap, but I’ve heard that it’s full of particularly unpleasant characters :) I have to admit I’d find it hard to enjoy a book like that.

  10. I always find it entertaining when some of my favorite people consider themselves unlikeable to one extent or another. I think you might be a bit like me in that I never want to do (and usually won’t do) anything I don’t want to do. I’d rather not go somewhere or hang out with someone if I feel like I’m being artificial or if whatever it is will be bullshit.

    I’ve been thinking about this post since I first read it. I searched our site to see how often we use it (not very often), but I definitely like ‘unlikeable’ characters. My biggest issue with characters is whether or not they are understandable. Not necessarily relatable (to me), but that the author has put the work into the character so that they seem like a real person–whether that means that they are completely erratic, a total asshole, or a complete idiot. The characters I *hate* the most are the ones that play into horrible stereotypes (like female characters using emotion rather than logic to make decisions, that’s a huge pet peeve of mine).

    I’m definitely going to be more mindful of explaining what I mean when I say likeable from now on. This entire comment makes no sense.

    • I would agree with that – as I get older I get more comfortable with expressing what I like/don’t like. I still worry about what other people think, but less so than when I was younger, when it seemed more important to be perceived a certain way.

      I think being about to understand a character in the context of the story makes a lot of sense. It’s easy to say: “That’s not what I would do,” but I think the real question is whether it’s realistic for the character in those circumstances. Sometimes when characters get called “unlikeable”, there’s actually a good reason for them being the way they are!

      Great point about the stereotypes too – lazy characterisation annoys me no end.

  11. Really thougtful and thought-provoking post. I’ve never thought about it, but you’re right — “likeable” is kind of a lazy descriptor, mainly becuase I’d wager to guess that people don’t use it in a strict-definition kind of way. And it points to the fact that people in general are kind of thoughtless when it comes to using language. We don’t think about connotations and context and specificity.

    I think for me, when I approach characters it’s similar to how I approach people in general — I value genuineness and honesty, and leave a lot of space for “realness”…i.e., happiness, anger, irritability, sadness, frustration, confusion, etc. I also recognize that sometimes I may not want to read a certain character’s story, just like I don’t want to hang out with some people in real life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize their validity and worth. It doesn’t have to do with their “likeability”….but a lot of other factors.

    • Thanks Amanda! To me “likeable” feels like a word that has lost a bit of meaning from overuse. And I think it’s one of those words that’s not very meaningful to anyone except the person saying it. After all, what’s likeable to one person is probably different to what’s likeable for another.

      It’s always interesting to hear what people relate to in characters and what they don’t. And I love your thoughts about spending time with books being like people you choose to spend time with!

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