by Barbara Linn Probst
The question of likability, especially for female protagonists, is a topic that’s sparked heated debate. Male protagonists have, traditionally, had an easier time of it. There have been rascals and rogues as well as knights. For every Atticus Finch, there’s a Rhett Butler. Female protagonists have had a more difficult history. Eccentricity is permitted (think of Elinor Oliphant). So too, anti-heroines are allowed in psychological thrillers like Flynn’s Gone Girl or Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. Yet a truly unlikeable female protagonist is relatively rare.
Sometimes relatability is suggested as an alternative. “Your heroine doesn’t have to be perfect,” we’re told. “She can have weaknesses, make mistakes. That makes her someone we can connect with. It makes her relatable.”
Some have rejected both concepts. They point out that great characters in literature have been self-centered, self-deluding, ambitious, jealous, craven, angry, broken. As Mohsin Hamid notes in the New York Times (September 24, 2013), we can love a book without liking its protagonist. In fact, it’s often the “fatal flaw” and ensuing struggle that make us turn the pages.
So what is likability?
In simplest terms, likability is "the quality of being readily or easily liked." In his 2005 book, The Likability Factor, Tim Sanders parses the concept into four aspects: friendless, relevance (connecting with others’ wants and needs), empathy, and realness (integrity, authenticity).
That same year, psychologist Stephen Reysen developed an eleven-item likability scale, covering perceptions of warmth, friendliness, attractiveness, approachability, and similarity to oneself.
The assumption is that likability is intrinsic to the person—that is, it’s something that a reasonable person would feel about Mr. X or Ms. Y. The impact of factors like culture, gender, and temperament aren’t taken into account. Likability is assumed to be inherent, objective, and good.
It’s not surprising, then, that there are countless articles offering advice to writers about how to make our characters “likable” in five or six or twelve sure-fire ways. If we don’t like the protagonist, why would we care whether or not she achieves her goal?
On the other hand, there’s been a backlash against likability. In the January/February 2018 issue of The Literary Life, a publication of Poets & Writers, Stephen Almond writes “in praise of the unlikable.” Novelist Tara Burton also cautions against too much concern for likability. In her 2018 article for Vox, she minces no words in asserting that “talking about ‘likability’ in fiction ignores what the greatest literature does.”
It’s worth quoting her at length:
“A character who is portrayed as fully human— a frayed and interwoven tapestry of flaws, neuroses, aspirations, longings, yearnings, hatreds, envies — cannot be easily likable. To truly understand a person, we cannot simply engage with their surface good qualities. We must know their brokenness, too, the terrible things they think, say, and do. And, ideally — when the work is good and well told — we must care about them anyway. We must learn to become invested in the journeys of whole, complete people, who are, like all human beings, both likable and unlikable.”
What is relatability, and what is its role in literature?
When we say that someone is relatable, we mean that it’s easy to understand and feel connected to them. S/he’s like me, in some fundamental way. I can bond, empathize, identify. Relatability answers the question: likable to whom?
At first glance, this seems like an obvious “must have” for a protagonist. Yet here too, it’s more complicated.
What about those extraordinary, larger-than-life heroes or characters who live in circumstances that are nothing like ours? At times, certainly, we read fiction to enlarge our world, not to confirm what we already know. Historical fiction, folklore, mythology, fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, magical realism—huge chunks of literature lie precisely outside the realm of the familiar and “relatable.” That’s why we like them!
Even for so-called “realistic” fiction, relatability has its limits. As Rebecca Mead asks, in her article on the “scourge” of relatability: Should characters in literature be people we can easily understand and assume we can relate to?
In other words, should reading fiction be an easy, unambiguous experience?
Mead objects to the expectation that a book should reflect, conform to, and confirm what we already know, or think we know—that it ought to serve as a mirror in which the reader recognizes himself. “The notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”
She goes even further, decrying the laziness and passivity this implies. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”
The unrelatability of a character, setting, or situation can stretch us to think in a new way—and make a story more interesting. Remember that unrelatable features are unusual, not intrinsically good or bad.
How can I assess the likability and relatability of my novel’s protagonist?
By way of example, I’ll use the protagonist of my own novel, QUEEN OF THE OWLS.
Elizabeth is likable because she’s smart, hard-working, and a loving mother. She tries to do the right thing and to meet needs of those she cares about. We can relate to her feeling for her children, her passion for her work, her longing for something more in a relationship, and her willingness to (finally) step outside her comfort zone.
On the other hand, there are aspects of Elizabeth’s life and character that many readers will not be able to “relate” to. Few readers are on track to get a PhD in Art History, and most would have difficulty imagining themselves posing nude in imitation of the iconic painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
Still, the feelings behind her actions—the deep yearning that draws her to Richard, a charismatic photographer—are psychological truths that we can relate to, even if we’ve never experienced exactly what Elizabeth has experienced. Externally, she may seem unrelatable; but internally, in her desires and emotional responses, she’s quite relatable.
In fact, it’s the combination of the relatable and unrelatable elements that makes Elizabeth an intriguing character. After all, we don’t want to read about someone who seems entirely known and familiar! We like motivations we can connect with, dressed in unfamiliar garb.
When a character is truly unlikeable
It’s a little trickier when a character is truly unlikable. We can accept an unlikable trait or two if it’s a weakness the protagonist must struggle with, and transform by the end of the book, perhaps after she realizes its cost and experiences true remorse.
A character who starts out vain or proud becomes lovable when we can witness their growing awareness and wish to do better. The unlikable trait can also be a mask for insecurity or the result of an earlier wound. We can accept the unlikability because it has a reason and isn’t the whole of the person.
Many readers are suspicious of a protagonist who has no real flaws. Too much likability makes a character unrelatable. At the same time, it’s hard to craft a compelling story around someone who is fundamentally unlikable.
We’re drawn to complexity—to characters who seem real because they combine traits we like and traits that make us uncomfortable. The features we understand draw us in; the features we don’t understand keep us curious—and keep us reading. Without the latter, we’d be bored.
Questions to ask about your own protagonist:
- What are the aspects of my protagonist that I most admire and would like to embody or find in a friend? When I see her acting this way, I’m on her side. These are her likable features.
- What are the aspects that I feel comfortable with and feel I understand, as if I’ve been there myself (even if I haven’t been in that specific situation)? These are her relatable features.
- What are the traits that cause my character to make wrong decisions, compromise her sense of self, or alienate those who want to help her? When I see her acting this way, I want to wince or recoil—or run. These are her unlikable features.
- What are the traits that I’ve included, even though they’re probably outside the direct experience of most readers, because I feel they’re integral to my character or her story? These are her unrelatable features.
Then consider the cast of other characters. Is there someone for each of the four categories above?
I don’t mean to suggest adding cliché villains, goodie-goodies, or eccentrics—only that each category should be represented in the story, in specific features if not in whole characters.
I’ll take another step and suggest that likability and relatability aren’t what make us keep reading. We keep reading for one reason only: we have to know what’s going to happen!
That engagement can happen for all sorts of reasons—a high-stakes plot, gorgeous writing, identification with the protagonist. Likability alone won’t do it. But we do have to care.
As Tara Burton reminds us, our characters—like our friends, our family, and ourselves—don’t have to be likable to be lovable.
Do you have a main character who is unlikeable? Will you read a book with one? Name one unlikeable character that you love!
* * * * * *
Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, coming in April 2020 from the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and will be the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To pre-order or learn more, please visithttp://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/
A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life.
This novel asks the question: How much is Elizabeth willing to risk to be truly seen and known?
Click here to read more, or to pre-order the book.
Top photo credit: Deposit Photos
An earlier version of this article appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books in December 2018.