As I sat down to write about likeable and unlikeable characters in fiction I wondered why it had taken me so long to get to what is practically my pet subject. Now I know why – it’s incredibly complex, subjective and full of intangibles. All I can hope to do is start a discussion and this is something people like to talk about. Of all the topics which come up when discussing novels, particularly in book groups, it is one of the most hotly debated. For writers it’s a challenge, a dilemma and a frequent source of exasperation.
I recently read two excellent novels in quick succession which I’ll be using as examples: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Many of you have read them and I hope you’ll share your views, both on the books and on the wider issue – they may be very different to mine.
Apple Tree Yard is part psychological thriller, part courtroom drama set in London. It charts the downfall of successful 52-year-old geneticist Yvonne Carmichael, who is married with grown-up children, after she embarks on a spontaneous affair.
In The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Nora Eldridge, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher and would-be artist from Massachusetts, tells the whole story of her intense entanglement with the Shahid family – mother, father and young son – going back several years.
The intention is not to pit these novels against each other – both are thoughtful, well-written and so gripping they leave a dent. Each involves an unusually frank and exposing portrayal of a middle-aged woman. And for me they have something else in common: I didn’t like Yvonne or Nora very much, and I’ll explain why it really didn’t matter.
For some readers, not liking the characters in a novel is a deal breaker, and that’s fair enough. It’s more of an issue in some genres than others and is obviously extremely personal – we all like different people in real life. Before going any further, I should say that I see the term ‘likeable’ as a misnomer – what we’re actually talking about here goes much wider than that to include sympathy and empathy.
One of the most stinging criticisms that can be levelled at an author is that their characters are cardboard cut-outs or one dimensional. When a writer does succeed in creating characters who feel like real human beings – complicated, inconsistent, with a mixture of positive and negative traits – the reader is more likely to engage with them and once that precious link has been made, to care what happens to them. That’s not the same as liking. I’m always fascinated by people’s individual responses to character and how much they vary.
Sometimes it’s pretty simple – you just love a character and identify strongly with them in some way. They may remind you of yourself: maybe you have a similar sense of humour, they feel how you felt when the same thing happened to you (how did the author know that?), you smoke the same cigarettes. Or they may not be like you at all.
It’s flawed and fucked-up characters who interest me the most. I like it when I have to keep reassessing them as more is revealed, sometimes shifting allegiances. Sometimes my capacity to feel for someone who isn’t very sympathetic takes me unawares. That was true of Nora in The Woman Upstairs.
Characters’ experiences can stir up uncomfortable and painful emotions or as people they can hold a mirror to the things you don’t like about yourself, but sometimes those are precisely the points of connection: even if you don’t like them or condone their actions, your experience of (or ability to imagine) grief, love or betrayal makes it possible to empathise with them.
And when it comes to the real bad guys, they can be horribly fascinating. Or repellent.
Yvonne in Apple Tree Yard is an intriguing protagonist who makes some very recognisable observations on the inequalities between men and women. I’ve read very few novels in which a woman over 40 (let alone 50) is portrayed as attractive and motivated by a desire for sex, not necessarily love, and the book is very refreshing in both of these respects.
However, I didn’t connect with Yvonne on an emotional level and struggled to empathise with her. I found her detached and her behaviour often hard to understand. Aspects of her family life which could potentially have warmed her or elicited sympathy were too peripheral to have that effect on me. Surprisingly, none of this affected my enjoyment of the novel where normally it would: Apple Tree Yard benefits from such demonically tight pacing and handling of suspense that I raced through it in two days. I then recommended it to my book group who’ve since done the same and we can’t wait to discuss it.
The Woman Upstairs has a very different feel. It’s a quieter, more reflective book and more character driven. Nora Eldridge doesn’t make life easy for herself and she taxed my patience at times with her extended bouts of self-pity and pessimism. The novel opens with her declaring how angry she is but by the end it’s clear there’s a good reason for that. In this interview with Publishers’ Weekly, author Claire Messud gave a fantastic rebuttal to implied criticism that Nora isn’t likeable.
This novel got under my skin in another way entirely – Nora certainly ticks the flawed and vulnerable boxes. Her outlook was so pervasive that it didn’t just affect the way I felt about her, but my mood in general. It was far from uplifting, but it contains some lovely writing and many poignant moments.
There comes that time […] when your life looks small and always the same around you, and you don’t think anything will change, you think that hope is not for you – and if you’re me, then in that early period of awakening to your condition, you don’t even feel angry. Dismayed, maybe; shocked; but that’s just, it seems, what life is, a world in which the day’s great excitement is the arrival of the Garnet Hill catalog that you will peruse in the bathroom…
This novel really made me stop and think about dreams and ambition, ageing and the way society views women without children.
If I wanted to make friends of fictional characters, I’d enjoy far fewer of the novels I read. Claire Messud said:
We read to find life, in all its possibilities.
That’s good enough for me.
Where do you stand on the issue of ‘likeable characters’? Have you read either of these novels?
THANKS to Nicholas Royle, Ruth Hunt, Louise Walters, Sarah Perry, Lucy Marcovitch, Jonathan Ruppin and Matt Greene for sharing your thoughts on Twitter.
I haven’t read The Woman Upstairs yet, but I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of Yvonne in Apple Tree Yard. She was not immediately likeable, yet I could relate to her in some ways – she conveyed possibilities. After all, likeable is a highly overrated characteristic: I wouldn’t rate Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Jane Austen’s Emma as particularly likeable either.
Hi Marina, thanks for commenting and sharing the post. It sounds as if we have similar views on the likeability issue. Emma Bovary is one of my favourite characters in fiction and even though I couldn’t begin to understand the novel properly in my teens, she was one of the reasons I did a French degree. You’re right, in many ways she isn’t likeable, but I absolutely baulked at seeing her dismissed as ‘pathetic’ in an article this week!
Only in the sense that all of us dreamers, who want something more in life, are ‘pathetic’… Grrr!
I’ve read Apple Tree Yard and whilst I was irritated slightly by just how many times we were told Yvonne was 52, I agree, it was refreshing to have a portrayal of a woman in her 50s as being sexually attractive. I didn’t much like her but it didn’t really matter, it was much more important to have a properly fleshed out character, warts and all. And now I’m looking forward to reading The Woman Upstairs, it’s high on my TBR heap!
(Btw, couldn’t post this through Twitter for some reason!)
Do let me know how you find The Woman Upstairs – I found it very interesting looking at the two novels alongside each other. The middle aged woman in fiction is something I feel strongly about (see other replies!)
I haven’t read Apple Tree Yard, but I just finished listening to The Woman Upstairs this morning. I didn’t find the main character especially likeable, but my overwhelming impression what that she–and the book–were filled with such slow-simmering RAGE. This book certainly isn’t going to make my Top 10 list for the year, but I do admire the way that the author was able to pull off writing about such anger without going over the top with it.
Another recent novel that I’ve read that was filled with unlikeable characters was The Dinner by Koch. However, even though I didn’t like any of the characters in that novel, I still find myself thinking about them months later–and that’s the sign of a talented writer.
Very true about the anger in TWU – I found it almost overwhelming, and I can’t recall reading a novel that affected my emotional state so dramatically for a long time. I’m sure it’ll stay with me and as you say, that’s a big thing for a writer to pull off.
I’m in total agreement here, I much prefer a fucked-up, unsympathetic character. My problem with likeable characters is realism – how many really likeable people do you know? Humans are flawed and often put themselves first and I think seeing those characteristics on the page makes the character more interesting.
Of the two books, I’ve read Apple Tree Yard and loved it. Did I like Yvonne? Not really? Did I feel sympathy for her? Surprisingly quite often. She’s a middle aged woman behaving in an non-stereotypical manner. Hurrah! More of those, please.
Hi Naomi Thanks for your interesting comment. I’m lucky to know plenty of ‘nice’ people but we all have our failings and fiction that presents people as too pleasant (or well-adjusted) bores me to death.
I’m very encouraged at the reaction to my comments about portrayal of middle aged women. My own novel has female main characters about to turn 40 and 50 and one of the reasons I wrote it was because I didn’t see the lives of women my age being written about very much at all, let alone in a way I could relate to.
Another interesting post, Isabel. As yet, I haven’t read either of the novels, but hope to do so. No, I don’t think characters need to be likeable but, if they’re not, they do need something else about them that attracts us and that something can be really hard to pin down. Like you said, I’m looking for some point of connection but it may be quite esoteric. Generally I’m looking for characters in fiction who seem like real people, but they may not be the kind of people I’d like to spend much time with.
Thanks, Anne. It’s so hard to analyse that I nearly abandoned this article, but I’m glad I didn’t! Hope you enjoy these novels – I think at the very least you’d find them interesting with your psychology hat on.
I think sometimes how you respond to a character being likeable or unlikeable depends on where you are in your life at that time. For example I read, and loved, Middlemarch as a 19 year old….but detested Casabon. I recently re read this as a ‘mature’ woman with my Bookgroup and actually felt a great deal of sympathy for him……trapped by his own short comings . I guess what is important is that a character is well drawn and ‘believable’ not necessarily likeable….. But it’s an interesting debate.
That’s a very good point too. So many of the texts studied at school would make a lot more sense to people at a different stage of their lives, but it only takes one or two really inspiring ones to make a big difference. Your comment made me feel bad about not re-reading books more often (not to mention all the ones I feel I ‘should’ have read and haven’t). Since I started this blog I am inundated with the latest releases and there never seems to be time!
Although unlikeable characters are not a deal breaker for me, I have to say that most of the books I adore have protagonists who I love. But that doesn’t mean they’re saintly; I love Anais in The Panopticon and Janie Ryan from Tony Hogan… & to many I’m sure they would be quite contemptible. They might appear bad on the outside but they have hearts of gold, and those are the kinds of people I am drawn to in real life so I guess I feel more affection for those kinds of characters.
It’s lovely to hear someone speak up for characters they like or love. I agree that Janie Ryan is a fantastic character – so human and alive. I loved Jason Prosper from The Starboard Sea despite him having done a terrible thing because I was so moved by his regret and the price he paid for it, and because he had the ability to see the emptiness of his super-privileged life as if he was an outsider. I also loved Attilius in Pompeii by Robert Harris for slightly more predictable reasons!
Interesting posts! I read Apple Tree Yard – pretty quickly, as the plot is so gripping – and have The Woman Upstairs on the wobbling TBR pile. I found Yvonne’s relentless obsession irritating – it felt like being stuck in a problem page – but I did want to find out what happened. I also felt a bit manipulated by Issues – what happens when a woman behaves like a (stereotypical) man? – rather than swept up in the writing. I wanted more of her prison experience too. But she was certainly believable; and the book made me think about our expectations of women’s behaviour, and how this translates into my own writing, which was useful.
If you’re in the mood for another challenging(!) character, I can recommend ‘Alys, Always,’ by Harriet Lane . Beautifully written, funny and sly – I guarantee you won’t be able to put down the story of 30-something Frances Thorpe, and her unstoppable rise…
PS: Of course it would be even more interesting if Frances Thorpe were 50-something!
Hi Sarah and thanks for these interesting comments about Apple Tree Yard – it’s such a great book to discuss and I bet my book group will really dissect it when we go away for the weekend soon. I’ve read Alys, Always and agree how good it is. Did you know Harriet has a new novel out in June, Her? It’s probably a sign of my middle-agedness that I consider anyone under 40 to be still young(ish)!!
Two mixed up characters, I think. Intriguing. I read Apple Tree Yard very fast – absolutely gripping. The Woman Upstairs began to bore and irritate me, I’m afraid (the character and the book), though when I got to the end I was glad I hadn’t given up.
I agree with everyone who says likeability is not the point, but have had two agents say they didn’t ‘absolutely fall in love’ with my protagonist, so maybe it does matter.
Oh, and by the way, I think of sixty, not fifty, as middle aged and have written sex scenes for people in their sixties.
Am working my way through the Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen at present – about a woman in her fifties with hang-ups. Interesting, though not an easy read.
And thanks very much, Isabel, for an interesting post.
Hi Barbara and thanks for this comment. I’m not entirely clear which point you’re responding to re the age of 60 but I was interested anyway. I agree that Nora as a narrator was really hard work at times and would put some readers off completely but like you, I’m glad I saw it through.
Your remark about agents not ‘falling in love’ is horribly familiar. I got this a lot too before agents decided they DID love my novel (after I’d rewritten it), but they were always saying it of the book as a whole (for a start mine has two equal third person POV characters), not one character. From your blog I get the impression you have a first person narrator so that may account for it. In any case, I wish you luck!
Hi Isabel, I read your post for the first time a couple of days ago, and have been thinking about my response to the question ever since, wondering how to respond, as I don’t really ever consider the question of likeability or not when I read. It never even occurred to me to ask whether I liked Yvonne in Apple Tree Yard or not. What was important to me was that I was interested in her and what happened to her. She made some poor choices, and was morally compromised, but that was intriguing. Having thought about it, I think I particularly enjoy that kind of protagonist, and relish finding that the author has made me care about the outcome for characters who are behaving badly.
Hi Rowena, thanks for giving it so much thought! It sounds as if likeability really isn’t an issue for you at all if you don’t even notice whether the character is sympathetic. As you probably gathered, it’s not that important to me either. I agree that an author’s skill in engaging the reader regardless is what counts.
Character likeability is an interesting concept as it goes to the heart of the way readers engage with fiction — i.e. completely privately and secretly within their own minds. However, when in a reading group or creative writing class we are invited and expected to share that intimate engagement. So, to take an extreme example, you might vicariously enjoy a character doing something unspeakable to another unpleasant character you might relate to in real life.
You might also feel illicit enjoyment when a character breaks the rules of social niceties to achieve a goal with which you also identify. There are countless thrilling, inspiring and exhilarating actions characters commit with which you can empathise and enjoy — especially when there are no real-world consequences (e.g. perhaps why infidelity and promiscuity are great plot drivers). However, in a discussion situation, it’s much safer socially to join in with a consensus about liking noble and virtuous characters.
And, as in real life, the closer one is to a flawed and dislikable character, the more one justifies and explains their faults and can also search for redeeming feature and in fiction it’s the skill of the writer to make the characters so vivid, real and three-dimensional that the reader feels similarly close. So if a writer has the ability to create living, breathing characters who connect with the reader then likeability should be an incidental attribute, as opposed to generating a bond of empathy.
Thanks for this very interesting and considered response to my post. You’ve obviously given this subject a great deal of thought over time and your ideas made me look at the whole thing again in a slightly different light. I doubt I will ever get bored of this subject!
This is such a very interesting topic! Reading the post and the comments has made me realise that the key criteria for me is to be able to understand a person, and how they behave when faced with real challenges. We are all nice and likeable when the sun is shining and we have no worries… but someone like that doesn’t make for an interesting story. I have read both the books you reference here. In fact I read Apple Tree Yard twice, having raced through it the first time, then had to read it in a more considered way for my Edit Your Novel course. That was interesting, as I found I had much more sympathy for Yvonne the second time round, when I knew the whole plot. I was much attuned to her sexual frustration as a driving force for some of her behaviour. For me, once I understand someone, I have sympathy and liking for them; I guess we tend to like people more for their frailties and failures than for their strengths and successes, or is that just me?
Great discussion, thanks Isabel!
Hi Voula, I was hoping you’d comment as I know this book made a big impression on you so thanks. No, it’s not just you – it seems many people are more interested in the empathy that flawed characters can provoke than in admiring strengths. In any case, the best characters often have elements of both.
I haven’t read either of these books but I enjoyed your musings on the topic. I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, but if they’re unlikeable I need to understand why, so that I can forgive them for it, if that makes sense. Characters who are flawed but struggling to change can be very relatable. I do remember hating JM Coetzee’s Disgrace because I had no empathy for the main character whatsoever. So it might depend on their particular brand of ‘unlikeableness’.
Thanks for your comment, Annabel and I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. Coetzee seems to excel in repellent characters and scenes – I’ve had to abandon several of his novels although I did find DISGRACE sufficiently compelling to finish, in a way that made me feel slightly disgusted with myself!
I like liking characters and like hating them as well so a character who makes me feel strongly makes me remember them!
Have just – for the first time – attended a book club discussing my own novel. I was surprised to find the main conversation, which got quite heated, focused on which characters were liked and who was liked best. It really brought home to me how important this issue is. My themes that are so close to my heart (ageing, loss, the BIg Questions, women’s self-image, etc) didn’t get a mention!
Do you agree that writing nice characters who are also interesting is harder than writing nasty characters?
I read The Woman Upstairs and Apple Tree Yard at around the same time. Apple Tree Yard is such a compelling story that I didn’t pause to think much about whether I liked the protagonist or not. On reflection: yes, I did empathise with her and forgave her faults. Unforgettable!
I’m sorry to say I can’t remember much about The Woman Upstairs.
Hi Barbara – thanks for your comment and congratulations on attending your first book club! This likeable or not issue seems to be an inescapable one and important to some readers. I completely understand your frustration at the ‘bigger’ issues in your novel being overlooked in favour of this. To answer your Q, I do think writing ‘nice’ interesting characters (not that I would put it like that exactly) is harder because it calls for more depth and psychological insight – we all know how dull a straightforwardly nice or happy character would be. When my novel was being widely rejected, I heard a lot of reservations about my first person narrator and suggestions that she needed ‘warming up’, the subtext being that readers wouldn’t like her because she is messed up by the things she’s done. I stood my ground because I believed readers would relate to her – and to the mistakes she’s made – and it’s incredibly satisfying that this has (mostly) been the case. All of which to say: I think it’s important to stay true to whatever it is you want to convey, rather than trying to water it down to please people. I hope you’re glad you did!