Recently I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Really thought provoking. When my book group—one of my book groups!—discussed it, it seemed like I might've been the only one who would call myself a feminist. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
In the book, Gay mentioned an interview with Claire Messud where the interviewer said she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (a book I chose as one of my staff picks at the library where I work).
Messud gave an eloquent and blistering response, which began with “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” and went on to say “The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” Here’s the whole thing in all its awesomeness.
This got me thinking about character likability, something Laura and I periodically talk about. I can’t think of a main character in one of our books that we don’t like, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make stupid decisions or do bad things. Like in Crave, our main character, Shay, got drunk and made out with her best friend’s boyfriend. She also risked her life for something pointless. Not exactly likable actions.
And Laura and I decided that was okay with us. We thought Shay behaved in a way that made sense for her. But Crave (as opposed to Lolita and The Woman Upstairs!) wouldn’t work if readers didn’t care about Shay. If she was so unlikable that readers didn’t care if she lived or got to be with the vampire she loved, well, that would be bad.
So where we come down on the likability issue is that our protagonists can be flawed, self-destructive, angry, or bad friends (but maybe not all at the same time), as long as there is something in them—humor, a glimmer of self-awareness, a moment of kindness to, say, a dog—that makes readers connect and care.
In other words, our protagonists aren't perfect, or perfectly likable. But we hope that they are, as Messud says, alive.