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Tuesday 22 July 2014

Justine Larbalestier is sick of reading reviews that assess books based on the ‘likeability’ of their characters. As someone who enjoys reading books about vile people she wouldn’t actually want to spend time with in real life, she explains why ‘likeability’ is not a requirement for good fiction. (And why it’s subjective.)


(Justine Larbalestier: ‘I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters.’

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, that discuss the likeability of characters in novels.

Here’s what I have noticed:

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be ‘likeable’.

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres. (Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about.)

IV. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the ‘likeability’ shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.


‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep. (Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere.) But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? … Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. When I say ‘last’, I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page. (Not literally. That would be terrifying.) Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

I care about every character I write. Even the villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely, if I don’t care about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer, I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I started to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.


‘There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.’

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.

No matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I hear many people talking about a character from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves them. I didn’t. I wanted that character to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate another character from a recent YA mega hit and I kinda love them. I don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon them.


III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. We YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers.

I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters who make bad decisions are easier to write about because they generate conflict and conflict makes plot. In the novels I write, plot is good.

As a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. They make many mistakes. Mistakes generate plot.

The idea that the more perfect a character is, the more likeable they are, is ridiculous. If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find much perfection on that list.


‘I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me.’

IV. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green-gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me. I want to live.

Many of the books I love are about vile people. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But is Humbert Humbert likeable? No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.

Justine Larbalestier’s latest novel is Razorhurst (Allen & Unwin).

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