The question came up during the discussion portion of Her Space at Boca de Oro. “Do you take into consideration the likeability of your characters when you are writing?”
The authors all looked at each other for a few moments as they thought about how to answer. Finally, Erin Lindsay McCabe responded, “But I have always liked Rosetta, I’m surprised when someone doesn’t.”
As authors, we live with our characters twenty-four seven. We know them inside and out; What’s their favorite color? What present did they get for their ninth birthday? Every minute detail that makes them tick. Of course, we are going to like them. They are a piece of us.
The question from the audience member leaves me with a question of my own; is the concept of likeability reserved only for women? And is likability even all that important?
When discussing her character Rachel from Girl on the Train, Emily Blunt said:
“With so many movies, women are held to what a man considers a feminine ideal,” begins Blunt. “You have to be pretty. You have to be ‘likable,’ which is my least favorite bloody word in the industry. Rachel isn’t ‘likable.’ What does that mean? To be witty and pretty and hold it together and be there for the guy? And he can just be a total drip?”
Anyone who has read Girl on the Train knows Rachel isn’t a likable character. She is a complete and total train wreck (pun intended). Her life has fallen apart and all she can seem to do is drink herself into oblivion. Tell me, what’s likable about that?
However, if we breakdown Rachel’s character we see a woman who lost everything. Her home, her husband, the life that she had always dreamed of. We aren’t supposed to “like” her. It’s not like we are going to go out for a cocktail…or a sobering cup of coffee once the book is over. When we look beyond whether or not we “like” Rachel we see something else, we see reality.
In Rachel, we see a woman whose life is falling apart around her. No real person, man or woman is going to be able to keep their shit together after going through what she went through.In this character, we see an accurate representation of an aspect of the human experience.
How unrealistic is it that we as readers expect our female characters to be likable? It’s a symptom of society on a larger scale. We expect women to carry the weight of the world on their backs…with a smile.
When creating a character we want to make them as real as possible. In doing so they have to be able to fit in with the human race if they were real and a woman likable to everyone is impossible to create. She must smile all the time, be polite, be a joy to everyone around her all the time. I suppose she must have perfect hair and makeup. My God, that sounds exhausting…and boring.
That woman is not likely to stare down nazis. Disguise herself as a boy and join the army or even find the strength to get her life in order again. When we focus on likability we sacrifice the interesting which is what makes a great story.