I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction

By posted at 12:00 pm on November 11, 2014 30


In high school I had a zine with my friend Vanessa. It included our poetry and short stories, and for the cover of the first issue we used a label maker to spell out its title.  After we’d put out one or two issues, I received a polite request from a man in prison, asking me to send him a copy. He paper-clipped two dollars in cash to his request. For some reason, I put the letter aside. From time to time, I took out the request, read it, and then put it back. Years later, I spent the money.

coverTo borrow a phrase from Bennie Salazar, the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, this is one of my “shame memories.” Sometimes when I can’t sleep, or when I’m having a particularly low day, I think about the guy in prison who wanted to read my zine, and I wonder why I never sent it to him, why I spent his two bucks on lip balm or a soda or whatever. What shames me the most is that there was no reason why I didn’t send him the zine. I just…didn’t. I had planned to, but something, perhaps the teenage trifecta of distraction, malaise, and self-absorption, held me back. I’m also ashamed that I think about this so much. As if my juvenile zine really mattered all that much to anyone.

Lately, I’ve been thinking: If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me?

covercoverIn her essay “Perfectly FlawedLionel Shriver writes, “Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.” I agree. As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting. I also have a taste for the quote-unquote unlikeable set: Eva Khatchadourian from Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; Sheba and Barbara from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal; Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country. I love that they’re barbed, delusional, judgmental, thorny, damaged, and/or vulnerable. As Roxane Gay writes, “I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”

Every couple of months there’s a new defense of unlikeable characters (see: Claire Messud‘s take) or likeable ones (see: Jennifer Weiner’s), and this conversation often returns to our cultural expectations of women.  Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote about “The Female Bad Fan” for The New Yorker. These are “the fans of shows with female protagonists, both comedies and dramas, who crave not bloodshed but empowerment.” Nussbaum writes:

The Mindy Project is a sitcom about a woman poisoned by rom-coms, but it offers up its own romantic-comedy pleasures. Female viewers, especially, have been trained to expect certain payoffs from romantic comedies, vicarious in nature: the meet-cute, the soul mate, and, in nearly every case, a “Me, too!” identification. Without “Me, too!,” some folks want a refund.

coverI’ve come across something similar with my own novel, California, which is marketed as a literary post-apocalyptic novel, but is also a study of a young marriage. While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida “isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive.” I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn’t also have trouble with Cal, Frida’s husband; to me, they’re both flawed.  I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review.

To be honest, the negative reactions to Frida have given me a wee bit of a complex. I’ve found myself wondering about my own actions, about the way I’ve hurt this or that person, or felt slighted about some insignificant thing someone said to me. The way, in college, I asked, “What’s with the hat?” to a Mennonite at the movies. The shame memories are running on repeat these days, is what I’m saying.

Frida isn’t like me: she is impetuous and secretive, she acts based on emotion and intuition, and she’s a slacker. Cal isn’t like me either: he is more hesitant, reserved, and adaptable than I am. These characters frustrated and disappointed me, but I always found them compelling. Likability wasn’t part of the equation; I simply wanted to write about these two specific people, alone and together in the woods, mourning their pasts and trying to stay hopeful. If anything, I was interested in setting a small-scale drama within an “end-of-the-world” situation. What if, at the end of the world, we aren’t our best selves–we’re just ourselves?
(This summer I read The Hunger Games and though I’d love to be as brave as Katniss, I doubt I would be. Maybe the post-apocalyptic genre has trained us to expect characters to break free from the shackles of pettiness and resentment and grief in the face of world-ruin. I’m interested in the characters who don’t or can’t do that.)

coverI decided to ask two fellow writers about their experience with the “unlikeable” issue. Jean Hanff Korelitz told me that by the time her new novel, You Should Have Known, came out in March, readers’ dislike for her protagonists had “risen to a general din…even from readers who liked the novel very much.”  She went on:

‘I just didn’t like her’ is a phrase I read over and over again on Goodreads and Amazon, about the protagonist, Grace Sachs (a woman who has so many problems — missing, probable murderer and adulterer husband, exploding career, global humiliation, etc.– that reader reviews would be pretty far down on the list).
The whole phenomenon made me take stock of the female characters I’ve gravitated to over the years: Lizzie Bennet? Becky Sharp? The strange, probably mentally ill narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Would I truly have wanted to take a spa weekend with any of them? When had that become a requirement for appreciating a fictional character?

When I asked Jean what’s on her mind as she creates a character, she said, “I seem to have this compulsion to take women who appear strong, fortunate, “self-actualized,” and rip them to shreds, then see what they make of themselves after that, how they claw their way back.” She continued:

I think there’s an essential feminism at work here…not that I am in the habit of quoting Therese Giudice (she of the indelible “ingredientses” for the cookbooks she — God help us — writes), but her most recent Real Housewives tagline — “You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have…”–could serve the protagonists of most of my novels. Women really are strong when they have to be. And that, to me, is far more compelling than finding your “bestie” in the pages of a novel.

Since receiving Jean’s words of wisdom, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above. After all, my real-life best friend can be all of those things, and I still love her.

Author Emma Straub helped me put this all in perspective. A small contingent of readers don’t seem to like her character Franny, who is the matriarch of Emma’s novel The Vacationers. (Which is weird to me, as Franny is funny, an excellent cook, and she’s being pretty pleasant in the wake of her husband’s infidelity.) Emma is wonderfully sanguine about the issue:

I certainly never intended to make my characters either likable or unlikeable — my goal with the characters in this book was to make them as real as possible. Warts and all. I always liked them, but I don’t think that’s even the point. I wasn’t surprised when some readers didn’t, because I saw them as three-dimensional human beings, and god knows it’s hard to find one of those that you don’t find in some way lacking or imperfect. I truly could not care less if readers feel differently.

I also think there’s a big difference between a character being unlikeable (whatever that means) and it being unpleasant to spend time reading about them. I have put down many books because I didn’t like the experience of reading them, but that has nothing at all to do with whether or not the characters in those books seemed like people I would want to hang out with. That’s my question, I suppose, for the people who keep bringing this horseshit up. Are they complaining about not enjoying the book, or that they don’t want to have tea with the characters? Because if it’s the former, for godssake, stop reading!

I grew up in a house built on horror novels, so I’ve spent my entire life reading books about serial killers and pedophiles and assorted other creeps. Are those unlikeable characters? To some people, probably.

coverTraditionally, the Unlikeable Character in fiction is created with authorial intention. You, as the reader, recognize the cues that the person you’re reading about is alienating or reprehensible, and it’s clear that such characterization is part of author’s aesthetic project. (Unreliable Characters, a la the infamous butler in Remains of the Day, are also traditionally revealed this way). But what if a character isn’t Unlikeable, but unlikeable?  What if you just didn’t like him or her? That’s a valid personal response, and certainly a good a reason as any to stop reading.  But it’s such a personal response that it’s irrelevant to the critical gaze.

Part of me is embarrassed that I unintentionally wrote characters that are so insufferable–at least to some readers. It’s like holding a glass up to a door, behind which strangers are describing how terrible you–or worse, your children!–are. I can’t help but keep eavesdropping.

At the same time that I emailed Jean and Emma, I also sought out readers who couldn’t stand Frida. This was part anthropological experiment, part focus group. I felt like, if I could just get some answers, I might understand my own book a little better.

I stumbled upon Susan’s review on Goodreads. In it, she details how much she couldn’t stand any of the characters in California. It’s a very funny rant, which begins, “I don’t remember ever before reading a book where I so hated all of the pieces yet so very much enjoyed the book as a whole.”

When I asked Susan when exactly her antipathy began, she told me, “I actually disliked Frida from almost the first page. She immediately seemed crass and spoiled to me.” In the first scene, the reader learns that Frida treasures a turkey baster, purchased before leaving Los Angeles, which even Cal doesn’t know she possesses. Susan said, “The turkey baster was so bizarre… I got what it was about, but the fact that it was so frivolous and silly, combined with the fact that the very first thing I learned about her was that she was keeping secrets (STUPID secrets!) from her husband just turned me off.”

Susan’s reactions fascinated me. One, that frivolity would be damning, rather than revealing, or that a reader would require a secret be grave, especially when it’s between a husband and wife. I’m reminded of the time someone told me they hate to dance, as in, they never ever feel the urge to move to music, even when alone. Wow, I thought, people sure are different from me!

(Susan also hated that Frida “seemed to be entirely defined by the men in her life.” I hate that, too.)

Susan had some choice words for Cal: “The truth is, I actually hated Cal more than Frida. I thought he was a pompous pseudo-intellectual hipster ass.” Sheesh, Susan, tell me how you really feel! Generally, she interpreted Cal and Frida through the lens of their white privilege. That interpretative model poses a powerful question about characterization: how much is our identity, and our actions, dictated by race and class? But, then again, if a reader traces everything about Frida and Cal back to their white privilege, that means I’ve failed, in some way, to make them fully human. It also might suggest that there’s a lower tolerance for white privilege in the post-apocalyptic landscape; some readers want the end-of-the-world to slough off such burdens. (To me, Frida and Cal are victims of late-capitalism, and also products of it. Aren’t we all.)

Another reader, Shayna, answered my call on Tumblr for anyone who hated Frida. She said she was bothered by Frida’s decision to take a Vicodin while pregnant. And, again, she took issue with Frida withholding information, especially from Cal. She wrote, “I just found this so stupid and selfish.”  It’s true, Frida does some pretty stupid and selfish stuff, as does Cal. I suppose, as a writer, I’m interested in the stupid, selfish choices we make.

Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can’t control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I’m  heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there’s often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, “A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero.”

Susan said,  “I am a huge, huge fan of Gillian Flynn, the primary reason being that she’s not afraid to write female characters who are evil, psychotic, violent, and messed up in every possible way.  I find that so much more empowering and compelling as a female reader to hear about those women than about the perfect, nice, likeable, and usually totally unrealistic female characters you find in most novels.”

Susan’s tastes align with mine, and with many other readers’. Right now there are so many complex female characters for us to encounter on the page and screen, particularly quote-unquote unlikable ones, from Amy Elliott-Dunne of Gone Girl, to the (less murderous) Hannah Horvath of Girls.  I, for one, can’t turn away from these women, and I won’t.

I won’t turn away from the characters who stem from my own dark, muddy mind, either.

Image via amysjoy/Flickr

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30 Responses to “I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction”

  1. Moe Murph
    at 12:21 pm on November 11, 2014

    The most remarkable thing about Custom of the Country’s Undine Spragg is that Edith Wharton, who obviously found her a most distasteful and gamy dish, still had the sheer creative genius to render her incredibly powerful and memorable character!

  2. My god
    at 12:29 pm on November 11, 2014

    Loved the essay – it’s interesting to see how the notions of “white privilege” affect the reading of characters – it used to be “late capitalism,” now it’s all about race. No idea what these people are thinking: like a black woman wouldn’t hold on to something from her past or keep a secret from her husband because she was just so un-privileged? That she wouldn’t miss Starbucks because she’d only ever had Dunkin’ Donuts? Come on…

    As much as I enjoyed it thought, as I continued I was like “please don’t mention Girls please don’t mention Girls almost to the end now gonna make it no mention of Girls in the NOOOOOOO”

  3. Jacques Fleener
    at 2:45 pm on November 11, 2014

    People have always read books and thought, “I don’t like these characters!” but in the past those readers had no way of sharing their feelings widely. Most people (even in the Internet age) are content to read books and reflect casually on them, leaving the floor open for the foot stomping of a vocal minority who all wear heavy boots.

    California, because of Colbert, got exposure to a crowd that usually would not have read the book – many of them book clubbers used to certain conventions – who have felt a need to express dissatisfaction with a writing approach that the original core audience of the book would likely have not have felt – at least not in the same numbers.

    I’m glad to see Edan Lepucki being willing to consider her critics, even though I think in the end it’s more important that she be true to her own vision than to try to satisfy a certain type of reader (that really doesn’t want to read Edan Lepucki books). Life is too short to read books we don’t like – so I’m not sure why people who don’t like certain protagonists don’t just put the books down and start new ones.

  4. Susan
    at 3:25 pm on November 11, 2014

    Awesome essay, Edan!

    I was the one who commented on the characters’ “white privilege,” and I’m realizing now, seeing it without the rest of my comments as context, that it sounds kind of offensive. What I was really getting at, in case anyone takes that the wrong way, was that I didn’t read any of the central characters in the book to have been as poorly off as they thought they were. The world building in this book was so great, and because of that, it was easy for me to imagine what the larger situation would like – and that meant wondering where Cal and Frida really fit in, in terms of class, race, education, etc. and of who would be most likely to survive this economic collapse, and how.

    Here is the rest of what I said on that point, hopefully this will clarify things a bit:

    “I did get the sense that just maybe these two weren’t as badly off as they made it out to be. Cal still went to a really prestigious college, and Frida and Micah were from Los Angeles and didn’t really seem to have had things that hard growing up. I kept wondering about the other 98% of the population. Like, the people in the rural areas who died in the snowstorms – what about them? Or what about the people who were already poor and whose communities were already being destroyed by drugs and violence BEFORE the economy tanked? … While Frida and Cal didn’t exactly come across as trust fund babies, I did keep wanting them to check their privilege at least a little bit. They just didn’t seem like authentic survivors to me… more like they were play acting, knowing that there was a safety net that they could go back to.”

    Personally, I don’t think that the reader noticing the characters’ privilege indicates a failure on the part of the writer at all, because people’s privilege (or lack thereof) is always going to be a major part of who they are, and it’s all going to be tied up with race, gender, education, and any number of other factors that go toward shaping one’s personality. There’s no doubt that these characters are extremely well written. I just wondered what was going on with everyone else. It was interesting to follow these particular characters, because their relative “privilege” is what allowed us to see inside the university, the political movement, and the gated community. I’m only remarking that in the world of the novel, they seem to be at the top of the heap, even if the top of the heap was still a struggle. The author seems to recognize this, but the characters themselves do not. In terms of likeability, the fact that none of them really seemed to acknowledge that others might have been worse off did make them somewhat less likeable for me. I think a companion novel (rather than a sequel, which I know a lot of people have requested) could be a really interesting opportunity to explore some other group of people with a completely different background.

  5. Edan
    at 3:37 pm on November 11, 2014

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    And, thank you, Susan, for furthering your thoughts here–and I am sorry I didn’t just include your entire email to me, since you bring up so many excellent points. I think this is a terrific question: what about those worse off than Cal and Frida?

  6. Janet Potter
    at 4:26 pm on November 11, 2014

    I was excited to see this. I, too, found myself wondering the other day if I would be considered a likeable character. I think I decided no, so nobody write about me.

    I had a friend who told me he didn’t like California because he didn’t like the characters. When I asked him why he said they weren’t “heroic” enough. This drew my ire because that was one of my favorite things about the book — and I think one of the book’s central ideas — that Cal and Frida remain flawed and randomly inconsiderate even though they’re in extreme circumstances.

    But from what he said, and from what I know about his taste in general, I really think he just wanted it to be a triumph-of-the-human-spirit post-apocalyptic novel, and since it wasn’t he took it out on Cal and Frida. Emma mentioned this briefly, but I think a lot of times the unlikeable characters complaint gets trotted out in lieu of a more specific complaint about the book. If a novel wasn’t someone’s cup of tea, and they can’t articulate why, the characters end up taking the blame.

  7. My god
    at 5:28 pm on November 11, 2014

    Could anyone possibly be advocating that, during an apocalypse, the main character should stop in the middle of the novel and think — “Yes, clearly this is bad. But I did go to an Ivy League School. And other people were poor back when I went. I am consciously checking my privilege right now.”

    Now, if Edan had written a book with poor characters, then they wouldn’t have to… well, wait, I guess they could think “Yes, clearly this is bad. But I did grow up and had the right to vote and I did get my high school degree and I’ve been in love. And there are people starving in Africa. I am consciously checking my privilege.”

    So really she should have set the book in Africa. Well wait, I guess the starving African children could think “Yes clearly I am starving now just as before. But I did exist, unlike the infinite number of those who never existed, and I am infinitely more privileged than them.”

    So really she should have had the characters be starving children in Africa who were never actually born.

    Susan does appear to get close to advocating this:
    “Like, the people in the rural areas who died in the snowstorms – what about them?”
    They died, Susan. They died.

  8. Anonymous
    at 9:56 pm on November 11, 2014

    I was neutral on your characters. Usually I try to avoid these drive-by privilege conversations because I think it’s unfair to heap such expectations (Address everyone! Understand everyone!) on any writer, and I think that much like “like-ability,” privilege should be considered a separate issue from critical considerations of how well a writer’s story hangs together and how well the author accomplished what she wanted. Privilege is a more over-arching conversation about all writers of a certain time, place, generation, etc., and it feels wrong to me wage that particular attack on a single author unless she’s written a completely un-ironic expression of her own privilege (in which case, why not focus your frustration as a reader on celebrity memoirs?).

    Your book is your book, and it’s one possible, narrow, story thread among many. Not everybody is Victor Hugo, interested in pausing for long chapters on the political context of the day. Your fan-fiction writers or detractors are free to tackle any aspect of your world that you chose not to write about.

    For what it’s worth, I thought you did a good job of showing that they were a product of a certain safety-net culture and lack of imagination. I found the book readable, even if I wouldn’t invite any of the characters over to my house for dinner. Cal and Frida seem the type to eat my food and sneak out in the night without doing any dishes.

  9. Susan
    at 1:24 am on November 12, 2014

    “My god,” whatever your name is, that’s quite the straw man you’ve got going on there. You have completely mis-characterized my comments. No, of course no one expects the characters to stop and make a neat little speech where they consciously check their privilege. However, there are a thousand other, more subtle ways that a character can demonstrate empathy and self-awareness – or not. I simply found these two characters to be somewhat self-absorbed, and from my perspective, it read as the possible result of a relatively sheltered upbringing. Edan says that she set out to write characters who were the victims of late capitalism, and I would say that she succeeded at that.

    You seem to have a lot of hostility regarding one observation that I made, which was only one of many. I’m not sure why. Speculative fiction, by its very nature, invites exactly this sort of examination. In fact, the more well written a book of this genre is, the more it should evoke comparison and parallels with real life – that’s what makes the genre so unnerving. I would argue that California, even more than other speculative novels, invites questions relating to class, race, and education because it depicts the “end of the world” not as the result of some apocalyptic event, but rather of a gradual economic decline. It’s reasonable to assume that not everyone’s life changed at exactly the same or in exactly the same way, and also to wonder, while reading, how our particular characters fit into the speculative world that the author has created.

    I think that California was a very successful novel, and part of that was the result of the characters’ naivety. The reader wonders, “how would I survive if the country continued to decline in XYZ ways? Sure, I’ve pinned a lot of articles on Pinterest about organic gardening and making my own soap and raising my own chickens, but the reality is that if I had to survive on my own in any real way, I would probably fail.” A critique of the characters does not necessarily equal a criticism of the book or the author. In this case, Edan contacted me after I left a light-hearted five star review on Goodreads. Hopefully she knows that I loved the book; not wanting to hang out with Frida and Cal or emulate their marriage has little to do with whether or not I think this was a quality read.

    As for the people who died in the snowstorm – yeah, they died. So? I can’t wonder what their lives looked like in the years before that or how they survived in a rural area as opposed to Los Angeles? That interests me. Does the author have a responsibility to include that detail in this book or to write a sequel addressing it? Of course not, come on. That won’t stop me from wondering about it or asking about it if she goes out of her way to contact me. To argue that readers shouldn’t want to know more about the world an author has created is a far bigger insult to the author than any critique of her characters’ likeability.

  10. My god
    at 3:07 am on November 12, 2014

    I’ve come to realize on this site that my chosen anon name is taken as a noun, not as an expression of incredulity – but whatevs.

    @Susan – it’s only a straw man if you abandon your opinions on the floor and caaarefully back away.

    Anyways, despite anyone’s eminent hedging-every-bet-quickly-watered-down opinions on whether it’s okay to dislike characters, my point was never that someone couldn’t dislike characters. That’s obvious. But it is ridiculous to say – “Why don’t these characters occupying this wasteland spend more time thinking about their race?” Those kinds of questions would be an indicator of pre-apocalypse privilege, which was common up until about 2060.

  11. Susan
    at 11:39 am on November 12, 2014

    “But it is ridiculous to say – “Why don’t these characters occupying this wasteland spend more time thinking about their race?”

    I never said that. I said I would have found them more likeable if they had been more self-aware. I’ve never visited this site before, so I initially gave the commenters here the benefit of the doubt, but at this point I’m going to assume you’re just trolling.

  12. Josef Zero
    at 12:21 pm on November 12, 2014

    “Check your privilege” = “Count your blessings.”

    Some people learn it in Sunday School for free, other’s pay $50k a year to learn it at a liberal arts school. Nothing ruins fiction more than forced-liberal arts perspective. And nothing is a better indicator of run-away privilege. That appears to be the entire countries perspective based on recent events, no?

  13. Josef Zero
    at 12:22 pm on November 12, 2014

    My God is a regular here, for the record.

  14. Jacques Fleener
    at 1:46 pm on November 12, 2014

    I can’t say I’ve never said or written or thought, “I wish the author would have done this instead of that.” But at the same time I think the point of one person being an author of a book and publishing it is that he or she is trying to work out a problem – trying to figure out what he or she thinks, in a convincing way.

    No book is flawless, and novels are especially flawed. We want them to be flawed, because the tidier they are, the more constrained they are. Even when we are wishing for loose ends to be tied up, we really don’t want that. Loose ends, inconsistencies – these in a way give novels life, give the reader license to take the story beyond the page. For me Philip K. Dick is probably the ultimate example of this. As imaginative as he was, he was not much of a stylist and he had so many ideas working at once, there’s no way to connect all the dots. As much as I would like to know what happened in Ubik or The Man In the High Castle that I never find out, the not knowing – the authorial failure to close all loops – is probably what animates my interest in the books after I’ve read them.

    It’s not as though a reader should refrain from speculating on how a book could have been different or “better” – but I think a reader has to be realistic about what is technically possible. Doesn’t every book miss out on some point of view or other? Would doing lip service (“Oh, Cal! The poor people! Think of the poor people! They didn’t even have prescription sunglasses to lose!”) really make up for the fact that this novelist simply didn’t take on the challenge of what happened to everyone she chose not to write about?

  15. My god
    at 3:30 pm on November 12, 2014

    Thanks @Josef.

    The reason I originally commented on this is because I think this is a fascinating case. Edan feels judged because her characters are upper-class secular white people who don’t “check their privilege”,and she is (by her own admittance) an upper-class secular white person. She didn’t write to purposefully make them “Unlikeable,” they just ended up kind of “unlikeable” after being made realistic.

    I suspect that the issue, what Edan is experiencing, is that the Left, fed by the internet and academia, has in the 2000s become radicalized in the same way that the Right became radicalized after the proliferation of right-wing radio in the 90s. Since the far-end of the Left is obsessed with authenticity, has an insane amount of white guilt, and is taught that each individual is the arbiter of what is “appropriate”, you get readers who are uncomfortable with a novel that is unapologetic and un-self-conscious at including someone with a college education who shops at Whole Foods (as does, hypocritically, the complaining reader). The fact is that most people on the Left feel like it’s not only within their rights but is indeed their duty to say “I’m not okay with this”, be it a magazine cover, a movie, an essay, a tweet, a book, whatever, and indeed, this the very coin of leftist culture now. This is why even far Left people like Lena Dunham get so much shit from the far Left: when your thoughts and actions matter less than the attributed intentions behind them, you get self-cannibalization.

    It’s sad, but it’s true that Edan could have avoided most of the problem by having Frida, much like Beyonce, merely say – “I am a feminist” and, like magic, she would be untouchable. Of course, as a white male, nothing Cal could say would allow him to avoid the opprobrium. So she would have had to change his race.

  16. Susan
    at 3:30 pm on November 12, 2014

    Jacques Fleener’s post makes me think that the breakdown here is stemming from the belief that I think the author should have had the characters counting their blessings in order to make them more likeable. That is something I never said, and would adamantly disagree with. Lack of self-awareness was in keeping with these characters. Any conscious acknowledgement of their privilege probably would have seemed contrived. The characters were extremely realistic, even if they weren’t particularly likeable *to me,* and their self-absorption was necessary to drive the plot, their privilege necessary to create the setting. I never approached this essay with the attitude that the author “should have” done anything differently.

    However, what I was *asked* by the author was why I didn’t like the characters. I sent her an email listing a number of reasons, and their relative privilege and self-absorption were one thing that I cited in the email. That one thing is what she decided to include in the essay for whatever reason. It wasn’t much more than than me saying that I thought they were spoiled brats.

    In retrospect, I probably wasn’t the best subject for this particular essay. Now that I’ve read it, I think that what she was really after were comments from people who didn’t like the characters, *and who because of that didn’t like the book.* That seems to be what everyone is interested in parsing, and I just don’t fall into that category. Beyond that, I don’t know what more to say; I feel I’ve more than adequately explained my point of view, so if some people are determined to ridicule me for it, then so be it.

  17. Jacques Fleener
    at 4:42 pm on November 12, 2014

    Susan, I don’t know if you’re talking about me re: being ridiculed, but I certainly don’t feel that I was ridiculing you. I reread your comments posted by Edan as well as your first comment in the thread, in case I had taken a unfair leap of logic in posting my own thoughts about the topic. I respect that you feel differently than I do about character creation and development; probably, as you suggest, there is not too much more ground left uncovered, and it seems pretty clear that the sides are not going to meet any time soon.

    Edan Lepucki was obviously wounded by your email … and it seems almost certain to me that you either don’t realize it or it doesn’t really matter to you. It doesn’t matter that you “liked it as a whole.” The way that you are criticizing the writing is fairly harsh and, for some, is not bulletproof analysis. Hopefully you can see that, even though seeing it doesn’t mean you have to change your mind.

  18. Edan Lepucki
    at 8:50 pm on November 12, 2014

    I am delighted that my essay engendered so much conversation!

    For the record, Susan’s email did not wound me. She took the time to answer my questions, and I am grateful to her for that. I welcomed her honest reactions to my characters, and I think she made some good points. She also made me laugh! I think I made all of that clear in my piece It’s true I didn’t include in my essay the majority of what she wrote in her email…mainly because I had so much material already…I’m sorry, Susan, if you feel your comments were misrepresented.

  19. Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Afternoon Bites: Ta-Nehisi Coates Interviewed, Matt Bell on Video Games, Barbara Lynn, Likability in Fiction, and More
    at 3:02 pm on November 13, 2014

    […] Edan Lepucki wrote about likability in fiction for The Millions. […]

  20. priskill
    at 7:21 pm on November 13, 2014

    Likability — shmikability, I say. Badly-behaving and spoiled characters are the most interesting, from Achilles sulking in his tent to Satan slithering in the garden to snobbish Emma Woodhouse, patronizing everyone in her path. It’s tiresome to submit every fictional character (not to mention the poor author!) to some kind of value judgments scale based on their politically correct or incorrect actions, words, or,even their perceived socioeconomic status prior to the main events of the story — in this case, the end of the world.

    Am currently reading War and Peace, written by one of the deadest and whitest of dead white males. So far, all the main characters are truly the 1% — Princes and Counts with fairy tale wealth — lording it over everyone else who are eking out their enslaved and miserable lives in the permafrost. Do I know this because Tolstoy dutifully trotted out the have-nots as a “check to privilege?” Nah, so far, Count Tolstoy doesn’t even bother with the starving, disease-ridden 99% whom history assures us was there, because that would be another book (see Dostoevsky).

    And it’s enthralling! This great artist created a living, breathing, pock-marked world built on the pride, vice, treachery, love, hate, greatness, and humanity of a few wealthy families in a vastly unjust age. Do I want to be best friends with any of them? Are any of them relatable? Good God, no! I read to see the world a bit differently — I don’t want literature to reflect my dull, null, known self back at me.

    Nor do I wish to judge art by the “morals” or presumed morals of the author and or the characters. Humbert Humbert is reprehensible, but Lolita is a masterful study of narcissim and self-will run riot mixed with a snob’s-eye view of mid-century American mores. And it’s funny.

    I loved this essay and discussion –it was thoughtful without sharpening the knives, and people made some great points. I am just ranting, not accusing anyone in this thread.

    And I can’t wait to read California! This discussion just makes me more eager to read it!

  21. Janelle
    at 11:23 pm on November 13, 2014

    When my beta readers read my YA Contemporary, it was all positive except one. The person I admired the most absolutely hated my characters. She refuses to acknowledge any good in my writing and even went as far as to say she hoped an agent that was interested in me would not sign me because she would hate to see my story published. As a good friend of mine, I am shocked that her anger would run so deep that she would champion against my lifelong dream just to see the story buried. Janelle

  22. Alice
    at 6:49 am on November 14, 2014

    Some people learn it in Sunday School for free, other’s pay $50k a year to learn it at a liberal arts school. Nothing ruins fiction more than forced-liberal arts perspective. And nothing is a better indicator of run-away privilege. That appears to be the entire countries perspective based on recent events, no?

  23. David Biddle
    at 9:22 am on November 14, 2014

    Three things:

    1. Hating people and overtly judging them has become a pretty weird American pastime everywhere. My big question these days is whether everyone’s in on it in one way or another, or whether them that understands how complicated life is (and sad) just don’t get the same attention.

    2. The growing chorus of Carrie Mathison haters tells me more about the success of what the “Homeland” creators are trying to do than whether Carrie is a “worthy” character. “Homeland” is all about reflecting who America is back at itself. What does that tell you about readers who find a well-rounded, realistic character “unlikable?”

    3. It seems to me that the key to characters in serious fiction is not whether they’re likable but whether the reader can relate to them. There’s a huge amount of art involved in that process for the author. You have to tap into the unconscious. That ain’t easy. Perhaps starting off by introducing with a character unwilling to show a hint of vulnerability and self-doubt isn’t a good idea here in 2014 — unless your writing a thriller.

  24. Moe Murph
    at 9:53 am on November 14, 2014


    Fascinating. I would surmise that the strong emotions your character dredged up in your beta reader are a sign you are on the right track! I had a comic character I used in a performance art piece who folks seemed to either love or hate. One very close friend of mine’s only comment was a clipped and prim remark “Well. She seems very…. angry.” On reflection over the next couple of years, I realized this outwardly “beige” nice-girl woman was holding a huge amount of anger inside her that finally began boiling out when she reached a point of crisis in her life. Interestingly, my now ex-husband dismissed her with one word, “repulsive,” and refused to talk about her ever again.

    Though it is not to everyone’s taste, I found Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” very helpful in working my way through the potential obstacles on the road to finding one’s own voice. Understanding how to process criticism and feedback, especially from those we admire, can make or break us.l

    Also would join Mr./Ms. Priskill in thanks for a wonderful essay by Edan Lupucki and some thought-provoking comments. Special shout-out to Jacques Fleener, always a pleasure to read your observations.

    Moe Murph

  25. priskill
    at 10:26 am on November 14, 2014

    @Janelle, your book must be really good, as Moe Murph says, to elicit such strong feelings. And so interesting that “friends” can be the most vocal in their dislike. You must be on to something big!

    @Dave Biddle, Yes! you are right about likability vs. relatability — I may not like various characters while still relating to them, warts and all. Maybe that’s the genius of it . Now i need to return to Homeland . . .

    @Moe Murph, I bet that character is a winner — I’m guessing you are female since male rage doesn’t seem to ruffle so many feathers. Myself, I both liked and related to The Woman Upstairs, and couldn’t figure out what the kerfuffle was about. Again, so enjoyed this essay and discussion!

  26. Autobiographical Writing–Fact or Fiction? | Bluestem Magazine
    at 11:40 pm on November 25, 2014

    […] Lepucki recently raised a question on a post on The Millions that I personally think about a lot. He asked, “If I were a fictional character, […]

  27. Some things I read this month | The Remainder Table
    at 4:02 am on December 1, 2014

    […] Lepucki, “I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction” (The […]

  28. Janet Cannon
    at 11:15 am on December 2, 2014

    Fascinating discussion! Just wanted to throw out a response (call it random, as so many others could have come to mind…) How about Pip? After the initial boyhood scenes, where obviously the reader develops sympathy for him as a child surrounded by adversity, he becomes as “annoying, self-centered and naive” as one can get. We continue to root for him through betrayal after betrayal, hoping something will happen to wake him up. He does in fact finally redeem himself by doing right, more or less, by the convict, but would he have, if his friend hadn’t been there to intervene? (Sorry, it’s been a while so I don’t remember all the names). Thank you, Edan, I will certainly read the book!

  29. Hate to Love Her: The Lasting Allure of Blair Waldorf | Bitch Flicks
    at 9:01 pm on February 25, 2015

    […] a much more interesting and compelling character than Golden Girl Serena. Edan Lepucki writes for The Millions, “But what if a character isn’t Unlikeable, but unlikeable? What if you just didn’t like him […]

  30. Niallo
    at 10:42 pm on March 13, 2016

    No idea what these people are thinking: like a black woman wouldn’t hold on to something from her past or keep a secret from her husband because she was just so un-privileged?

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