Reading & Writing

Writing Topic: Goodness and Likability

In my third year of college, we read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I believe it was a fiction workshop, though the book is considered a nonfiction novel. As we went around the room discussing the book’s setup and the way Capote presented the characters, I said something that made the class erupt.

I said I didn’t like the daughter–a young girl who was brutally murdered in the book and in real life.

I was insensitive. I was brutish. I was completely out of line.

When the teacher calmed my classmates, I rephrased my thought: as a human being, the victim of a horrible crime, an innocent young girl, I did not dislike her. I didn’t know her. I wasn’t talking about her as a person or denying the tragedy of her death. I did not like her as a character. Rather, I found her uninteresting. Flat. If she had been fictional, I argued, no one would be upset about this opinion.

My problem was not with the person being represented, but the way the author represented her. It seemed clear to me that, in researching the family, Capote found a lot of boiler-plate, she-was-such-a-good-girl information. Because it was nonfiction, he didn’t dare fill her out as anything but an angel. Because she was a child, he didn’t go digging for dirt.

This conversation led us to the larger question of character likability.

Everyone, I argued, is an unlikable character. This didn’t go over too well, either, as I was basically insulting my classmates–but I persisted. No one is universally liked. No one is perfect. I don’t generally deal in absolutes, but I’ll stand by these two.

If a character is too likable, they don’t feel real to me. Their characterization feels skewed and I become suspicious, or else I write them off as poorly developed. Just as no character is pure evil (not even Iago, you Shakespeare nerds–NOT EVEN IAGO!) no character is purely good.

Not that likability and goodness are the same thing. Absolutely not–some characters are hugely flawed and that’s almost why we like them. Take the Manic Pixie Dream Girl type–she’s adorable and funny and fun, but it’s her oddities that push her over the top. She’s TOO nice. She’s flaky. She’s afraid of commitment. Maybe she shoplifts or keys her ex’s car, but it’s a symptom of some deeper insecurity. She’s endearing.

She’s a figment of someone’s imagination.

Of course, in any discussion of likability, the topic of subjectivity will arise. A lot of people HATE the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s annoying, sexist, flat, etc. But within her story, everyone likes her. The leading man inevitably falls in love with her. Maybe she bakes him a cake and encourages him to take a life-changing trip even though it means they can’t be together, because she knows she isn’t good for him. Maybe they end up together in a room full of red balloons. Maybe she gets his grandmother to dance for the first time in thirty years and his family declares her a keeper.

Her story is not complicated. She is being seen through the pink haze of romance, in the kind of light that only shines on crushes and puppy loves. Her total likability tells me that the storyteller doesn’t really know her. It makes her feel like a piece of set dressing, a tool to help tell the protagonist’s story.

The main characters of In Cold Blood are the murderers, not the murdered. Capote could never interview those that were dead, but he spent ample time talking to their killers. In his case, the limitations of his storytelling were imposed by history. For most writers, the limitations are our own. We write flat characters–extremely likable or unlikable, purely good or evil–when we can’t access them, when we don’t understand. Sometimes we write these characters because we’re hoping to charm our audience. Sometimes we don’t know we’re doing it.

It’s been a long time since I even thought about whether my characters were likable (which is why I had to flash back to college) but for some reason, the topic is newly on my mind. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if likability is linked to a lack of conflict. If any of my named characters is sailing along smoothly, I feel the need to make things harder for them. It brings life to the story and keeps things moving. Plot is important; subplot is important, too. If giving a character her own conflict over-complicates the story, then she might be more of a plot device, and perhaps I’m giving her too much page time.

What do you think? How do you define likability?


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