One of the most common reasons given by editors for turning a prospective book down is that they find the main protagonist unsympathetic or the characters in general not ‘likeable’ enough. Writers find this reasoning absolutely maddening of course (all rejections are maddening, but this one especially so), because firstly they rather liked their characters; and secondly the reason they liked their characters was because they invested something personal and of themselves in them; and thirdly does that mean that they themselves are not likeable?; and fourthly, who says everyone has to be likeable anyway?; and fifthly: as it happens I don’t like you either, bloody editor.
Any evening spent with a group of women drinking wine and gossiping, oh, and discussing a book they have all recently tried to read – yes, an evening spent at a bookclub – is a sharp lesson in how important it is for a hero or heroine to be likeable because that’s where every conversation seems to begin or end: I didn’t like her, I didn’t like him, oh I liked her….
Why is this so important then? Well, the main object of liking a fictional character is so that we care….because immersive, successful fiction starts with giving a damn about the players. But not everyone I know or care about is particularly likeable – I’m probably often not particularly likeable myself – in fact I can’t say that I need or want to like everyone and everything all the time, that would be boring. What is liking anyway? It’s less than loving and more than hating, it’s feeling warmth to someone, or recognising something in someone, or feeling a sort of affirmation from them, or the fact they make you laugh… really liking one another is a bit like rubbing along together well. Is that what we look for then, from our book characters, to rub along with them well; to feel warmth and recognition for them; to gain some sort of affirmation from them; to be made to laugh by them? Well, yes, probably.
In that case, we want fictional protagonists to perform more or less the same function as our bookclub friends. Bookclubs do not just get together to discuss literature, to drink wine and to gossip about mutual friends, or kids, or school politics, or our jobs or our relationships with our partners and parents but, like any closed society (and yes they usually are closed – in my experience friendship-based bookclubs are famously difficult to gatecrash, once they have an established dynamic) they are also places in which to seek affirmation for our decisions and attitudes. Within our social circles we come to a sort of consensus on what is permissible. And then, we seem to expect novels to be our fables, in which ‘good’ behaviour such as patience, unwavering love, self-sacrifice and courage are rewarded; and destabilising and ‘weak’ behaviour such as anger, vengeance, impulsive acts and acts of betrayal are punished by events. If ‘bad’ people are let off lightly and ‘good’ people suffer, readers get cross (cf. many Amazon reviews). We look to the characters in the novels we read together to act as we would; to share a similar moral code. Otherwise: what the hell were they thinking? This book isn’t credible! Or else, much worse: what the hell are we thinking? Are we not credible?
And we export these narrative expectations back into our lives and get rather impatient at life too, when it refuses to act like a novel and instead, rather messily, good people we know are punished by illness and loss and betrayal; whilst others (including ourselves) get away with what we know to be selfish and weak behaviour. It seems that fiction operates within a more punitive moral code than we can afford in real life.
The power of the community bookclub in forging publishing hits and trends is such that we publishing people all know now what we mean by a ‘bookclub-type’ novel and it’s tricky to pin down but I will try to unpack it here: it means a book which is stimulating and educational in some way (the reader will learn about a period in history, or a different culture, or an unfamiliar experience such as grief or sexual adventure or terminal illness) but most of all the novel will be emotionally stirring and empowering, probably taking the protagonist and reader on a journey which ultimately demonstrates the power of love or self-love to offer solace and meaning. (Shoot me down: I’m sure there are exceptions and additions to these guidelines, I just made them up, after all.)
Some types of novel are particularly well suited to bookclub settings – where books can be debated by women with much in common – and one of those types is the Dilemma novel – a book which poses the question: What would you do if…? Because, as well as looking to fictional characters to affirm our moral codes and to make the decisions we ourselves would have made, we also use fiction to rehearse situations we haven’t yet experienced and to practice our reactions and emotions in advance of needing them.
But the reality is that, no matter how many books we read, none of us know what we would do if….? Not until it happens. And so we should be generous to our fictional friends, vessels for our hopes for ourselves; disliked if they don’t reflect the Us that we love the best. We should take the lesson that love and self-love can offer solace and meaning and turn our moral codes into gentler Guiding Principles – for ourselves, our friends and also the characters in the novels we read. Real life requires us to be kinder to ourselves – to be inclusive and progressive and realistic about compromise too – occasionally to use instinct to guide our judgements, rather than morality.
Fortunately, writers tend to like people and are better equipped than the rest of us are to find something loveable, never mind likeable, in all of us. If writers didn’t love humanity, they wouldn’t care enough about people to write about them or to invent them. I always reassure authors that they don’t need to write about likeable people; they must simply ensure that the reader understands why their characters act as they do – open them up for us, get under their skin with us, show us their vulnerabilities, needs and passions.
Writers don’t always have to create easy people; people easy to like; beautiful, morally upstanding, good people. We are uglier, life is uglier than that. And indeed it is in the ugly parts of us that we find our breakpoints and the sparks which fire our engines; it is in the gap between the Us we would like to be and the Us that we are that we should find our best fiction.