I’ve been reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and one of her essays gave me pause for thought. (Actually, many of her essays did, but this one in particular resonated with me this week).
Not Here to Make Friends discusses likeability in literature – the way many readers will criticise a book for an unlikable female protagonist, as if we were searching for friendships in these characters. I, for one, am certainly guilty of this, and I can think of books I have reviewed for Wandering Words even where how much I like the protagonist has swayed my rating of the book as a whole.
I can see now how unfair that is. Whereas I would argue that it is a fair criticism to decide a character is underdeveloped, or poorly written, I think making a judgement on how likeable a character has been is something I will consider differently from now on. In fact, some of the most memorable main characters in literature have been grossly flawed, like the stars of Lolita and The Pregnant Widow. Neither of those characters I wanted to befriend as I read through, but they were real – sometimes, frighteningly so – and I’ve never forgotten them.
I think that’s what makes people so uncomfortable about an unlikeable character – they are the most relatable, as they are as flawed as us; they are, to put it simply, human.
Roxane Gay quotes Claire Messud, who I feel captures the essence of this perfectly:
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?”
It made me also consider which characters stand out in the video games I love too. It’s usually the villains, or the characters who aren’t perfect things, but ones who give in to temptation, or have opposing or controversial views.
Similarly, a recent conversation with a friend over Dungeons & Dragons characters ended in us both agreeing that the strongest, most stand-out characters are those with flaws, who act impulsively or can be unkind for their own means at times. They may not be the most liked, Lawfully Good team mates, but they will always be the ones who drastically advance the plot and take us in unexpected directions.
I’ll certainly be writing my own characters differently now. I won’t be afraid of making them unapologetically sassy, or making them opinionated, or allowing them to make bad decisions – after all, character development isn’t necessarily the protagonist overcoming all of her flaws. All of us are flawed, so surely the most relatable character of all is the one who makes mistakes, and who doesn’t always learn from them.
I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things – human.
– Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
*Fun fact: the header image for this post features my well-loved, dog-eared copy of Bad Feminist. I have carried it everywhere with me religiously for the past fortnight, including through torrential rain (hence the soggy bottom!).