Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The likability fallacy, revisited

with 3 comments

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on Game of Thrones

Last year, I wrote a post on what I then saw as the fallacy that characters in stories ought to be likable. My argument, which I still mostly believe, is that characters need to be interesting—or, even better, that they take logical actions in response to the vivid situations in which they find themselves—and that if a protagonist isn’t engaging, it’s less a problem of sympathy than a symptom that something is going wrong elsewhere in the story. In the meantime, however, I’ve found myself backing away slightly from my initial hard stance. I’m still a little wary of likability, partially because it’s one of those notes, along with raising the stakes, that can never be wrong, which means that you’re likely to get it from readers who aren’t writers themselves. But since it’s a note that I expect to receive for the rest of my life, I’ve decided to work my around to a more nuanced version of what I’ve said here before. Likability may not be essential, but it’s a smart baseline from which to begin. All things being equal, I’d rather have a protagonist that the reader liked and admired than otherwise, so it makes more sense to start with that assumption and inch away from it as necessary.

In other words, likability belongs to the short list of best practices in fiction, rules that can be broken when the story demands it, but followed whenever you’re in doubt. The problem with likability, of course, is that it’s an inherently slippery concept. Unlike such guidelines as providing your characters with a clear sequence of objectives, which works as an unambiguous test, a character’s likability is a very subjective thing, with a wide range of potential interpretation, and it leads to confusion even among capable storytellers if they’re unable to distance themselves from the material. We may like or take an interest in our own characters, but it can be hard to know how others will react, even when the potential issues are obvious. (Witness the recent kerfuffle on Game of Thrones, which continues to position Jaime Lannister as a likable rogue despite a despicable act, not present in the original books, that the show’s creators don’t seem to have thought through until it was too late.) Likability makes me nervous because it’s an emergent property, arising from many small choices and decisions along the way, and you often don’t know what you’ve got until you’re done.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

Still, that’s true of anything in fiction, and it’s still possible for writers to influence the outcome with smart choices. I got to thinking about this after reading a provocative piece by the economist Russ Roberts in Politico, in which he argues that Frank Underwood—the manipulative, borderline psychopathic politician played by Kevin Spacey on House of Cards—is a Democrat for shrewd narrative reasons:

I think [series creator Beau] Willimon made Underwood a Democrat because he wanted us to like him…The show wouldn’t work if he were totally despicable. And for a lot of viewers, that means he can’t be a Republican. Because for some significant number of Netflix viewers, Republicans are automatically despicable in a way that Democrats can never be.

Roberts, for the record, is a passionate proponent of small government (and also a published novelist) who sounds a little like Aaron Sorkin’s Ainsley Hayes when he makes his case against federal spending for education and the poor. His piece is intended as a wakeup call for Republicans to regain the moral high ground, but it indirectly points to how canny House of Cards, for all its flaws, can be. Underwood can be a liar, a manipulator, and worse, but we’d turn against him at once if he were, say, a racist—or a conservative.

In other words, likability doesn’t seem all that different from anything else in writing: you start from a principle of doing no harm, follow the rules you know, and don’t make things any harder on yourself than they need to be. Of course, if that was the only way we proceeded, we’d end up with a lot of formulaic fiction, and in practice, the process is more of a spiral than a straight line, homing in gradually on the center we’re trying to find. (Contrary to what I may have implied above, by the way, there are plenty of rules out there for constructing likable protagonists, from the list of good and bad character flaws on TV Tropes to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide how useful they are.) But I suppose I’ve come around to the realization that likability, as muddled a concept as it might be, is something that a writer needs to take seriously, especially if it inspires other elements in the story to snap into focus. It can’t be taken in isolation, and if you force it, the reader or viewer will naturally resist. If it’s lacking, the real problem may be somewhere else entirely. But yes, it’s important. Which doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2014 at 9:37 am

3 Responses

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  1. A few random thoughts…

    ‘likable rouge’ sounds like a typo…

    Is not likability a tool like any other? Some narratives need it, some do not. It can have a serious side of making the reader ask themselves about their own attitudes to right and wrong, even.

    It seems to me that making someone who is clearly doing the wrong things likeable is a challenge some authors set themselves, sometimes to make a point, sometimes as an intentional constraint and means of avoiding cliche. Seinfeld is probably a classic example of this — four people being annoying and self-centred for half an hour. The other that comes to mind is Tony Hancock, the great British comedian, whose self-titled show (roughly 1956-61) shows a remarkable number of similarities to Seinfeld. He was pompous, gullible, self-centred, whining — and beloved. But writing that stuff requires supreme confidence. Seinfeld had a bunch of good writers with Seinfeld and David marshaling things, and Hancock was written by probably the greatest sitcom writing duo in history, Galton and Simpson.

    I think problems arise when authors like their own characters too much. Much as I like Terry Pratchett’s work, his Sam Vimes has become too good to be true (some of the other characters too, really… though for Carrot of course that’s his schtick). Too good at anticipating the opposition moves. Un-credibly insightful. He never really seems under threat in recent books, because he’s just a bit too clever, which I think stems form a lack of authorial objectivity. Last Vimes book I read (Snuff, I think) I just kept wanting him to be _wrong_, so I could see how he’d deal with it. But it never really happened.


    May 21, 2014 at 7:15 pm

  2. Thanks for catching that typo—I guess my internal spellcheck went rouge.

    Likability is a rule that can be broken like any other; all it requires is intentionality and skill. The first—that a writer be fully aware of what he or she is doing—is something that can be acquired with self-awareness and review, but the second is a little trickier. Some of my favorite novels, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, do great things with unlikable protagonists, but the ones that don’t pull it off usually don’t get published at all.


    May 21, 2014 at 9:48 pm

  3. I have experienced the likability difficulty in reactions to my poetry. It tends to get even rowdier when folks assume that, because it is a small, intense snapshot, a piece must be autobiographical. People bring so much of themselves to a work when they read it that you can never be sure if they will like a character or not. You can’t control what they will see. Personally, I’d rather see something interesting and enlightening than something beautiful or neatly packaged. I like things that challenge my ability to empathize.


    May 26, 2014 at 1:47 pm

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