By Isaac Butler
Laura Miller's incisive bit of close reading of the work of Jennifer Weiner reminds me that I always meant to write about "likable characters," back when there was some controversy around the concept and never got around to it, so here goes.
Basically, no matter what work of narrative art we are creating, be it a television show, a film, a play, a book, a short story, whatever, one of the things we'd all like is for the audience to engage with it from start to finish. We'd rather they not put the book down and read something else, always promising to get back to our books until one day they're in a cardboard box on the stoop with a hastily scrawled "FREE-- NO BED BUGS" on it. We don't want them to flip away from our TV shows, never to watch them again. And while social mores tend to keep people from walking out of plays and films, we'd like them to keep paying attention throughout.
There are all sorts of ways to do engage the audience and keep them engaged. One of them is to use characters that are genuinely "likable." They're charming. They're people we'd want to be friends with, or maybe even want to be. There is nothing wrong with using this tactic. It's not right for every work of art, but it's a totally legitimate way to create in the audience a desire to continue paying attention to the story you want to tell.
The presence of likable characters is a sign neither of quality nor its absence. The absense of likable characters is neither a sign of quality nor its absence. What matters is the appropriateness of the choice to use likability and the quality of the execution. Because certain genres that tend to be read by women also tend to feature an emphasis on likable protagonists, this rather low-stakes issue seems to have gotten swept up into larger debates about gender and genre. But there are plenty of literary fiction books that feature likable protagonists, and plenty of books by men (or predominantly read by men) that do the same. I mean, is there a more likable protagonist than Sam Clay in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex features an incredibly charming protagonist whose problems, like those in Weiner's novel, is largely external and whose conflicts tend to come from navigating a hostile and difficult world rather than any inherent negative aspects of his personality.
It's totally befuddling to me that what is, at its heart, a fairly low-stakes craft-level questions-- namely, is this particular tool (likable characters) the correct one to use to solve this particular problem (keeping people engaged)? and is this tool well-used?-- have gotten so heated. Likability is just one of many ways to create a compelling story. It's no more or less valid than any other.