Saturday, July 13, 2013

On Liking Likeable Characters

ISBN-10: 0307596907 ISBN-13: 9780307596901 Published: Knopf, 04/30/2013 Pages: 272 Language: English
In an interview with Publisher's Weekly promoting her widely acclaimed new novel, Claire Messud was rather irked by this particular question: "I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim." "For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?" Messud responded. "Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet?" She follows with many more examples, then adds: "If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t 'is this a potential friend for me?' but 'is this character alive?'" The internet has responded in a myriad of ways, with a whole panel of literary heavyweights in the New Yorker almost unanimously echoing Margaret Atwood's statement on the matter: "I stand firmly with Claire Messud." 

There are notable exceptions, however. Jennifer Weiner wrote an impassioned response in which she defends her preference for likeable characters and accuses female novelists such as Messud and Meg Wolitzer of dismissing the work of Weiner and other female writers' for making use of these characters. Weiner writes: "Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?" Others have accused Messud of simply being rude to her interviewer, or of being too self-righteous in her response. 

Messud and her defenders have understandably referred to the frustration of repeatedly receiving questions on likeability rarely faced by their male counterparts. Rivka Galchen writes: "I would suggest that we are well-trained to like 'unappealing' male characters—so much so that I would imagine anyone who wanted their male character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a challenge... Conversely, we are not well-trained to like anyone other than the basically virtuous and proficient female protagonist. Au contraire." Is character likeability a gendered issue? Galchen and Messud seem to believe so.

The whole debate is fascinating no matter where you stand on the question. Personally, my own affinities have always leaned towards the antihero. I have distinct memories of cheering on the Power Ranger's foes, who were always more interesting than a bunch of Boy (and Girl) Scouts in colored tights. Even today, among my favorite characters are Ahab, Macbeth, Dexter, and even John Milton's Satan, a surprisingly complex and sympathetic figure. How to justify my satisfaction in watching Batman beat the tar out of Superman, time and time again? As John Hodgman pointed out on a recent Judge John Hodgman podcast, Batman always wins in the comics because he is a ruthless sociopath, while Superman's idealism ultimately cripples him. To me, saints are less interesting than sinners because saints are not truly human. Real people are flawed. Shakespeare is famous for his compassion for and even celebration of human foibles, and characters who don't comprehend moral shades of grey (Othello, Claudio, Coriolanus) often end up performing horrible deeds. I guess what I'm getting at is that perfect, surface-likeable characters often strike me as hollow, two-dimensional, dead. 

 The question is even more confused by the fact that skilled writers make you genuinely like characters such as Humbert Humbert. Milton intended for his Satan to be appealing so that the reader could understand the true temptation of sin. So, are Humbert Humbert and Satan likeable characters? A difficult question to answer. Along with the rest of this complicated debate, I'll leave it for wiser heads to decide.

1 comment:

  1. My two cents? Nothing wrong with a winsome and likeable (female or male) character, but those need balance -- foils, foes, or counterparts to, as Messud said, "find life in all its possibilities."