‘Likeable’ is overrated — sometimes, we love to hate

Humbert Humbert

The NY Times published an interesting piece about whether fictional characters need to be “likeable”:

In fiction, as in my nonreading life, someone didn’t necessarily have to be likable to be lovable. Was Anna Karenina likable? Maybe not. Did part of me fall in love with her when I cracked open a secondhand hardcover of Tolstoy’s novel, purchased in a bookshop in Princeton, N.J., the day before I headed home to Pakistan for a hot, slow summer? Absolutely.

What about Humbert Humbert? A pedophile. A snob. A dangerous madman. The main character of Nabokov’s “Lolita” wasn’t very likable. But that voice. Ah. That voice had me at “fire of my loins.”

So I discovered I could fall in love with a voice. And I could fall in love with form, with the dramatic monologue of Camus’s “Fall,” or, more recently, the first-person plural of Julie Otsuka’s “Buddha in the Attic,” or the restless, centerless perspective of Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From the Goon Squad.” And I’d always been able to fall in love with plot, with the story of a story.

… I wonder if that is the case for many of us. Perhaps, in the widespread longing for likable characters, there is this: a desire, through fiction, for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible to open our eyes, to see, to recognize our solitude — and at the same time to not be entirely alone.

This is a question I’ve been thinking about lately as I’ve been reading the first book in my boyfriend’s favorite series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I won’t go into detail, but the protagonist commits a serious offense that’s difficult to forgive even though a lot of other factors color that event, making it perhaps more understandable but never excusable: rape.

Lord Foul's BaneCovenant is a leper. That’s what makes him sympathetic. He’s also transported to a different world and told he’s either going to save or damn it. But he’s not taking it seriously (yet?) because he thinks he’s dreaming — that none of it matters. That’s the long-term investment: whether he can redeem himself. Covenant is a pretty selfish guy.

The story is bigger than him, though. I don’t care about the thoughts running through his head and his self-pity as much as I do other characters’ reactions to him and what they go through for his sake — because of his mission.

Does that make for a more interesting story? Is that “glue” strong enough to hold a whole series together? I have yet to find out or decide. But at this point, Covenant is anything but likeable — or loveable.

Perhaps to echo the NY Times writer, however, is that need “for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible … to recognize our solitude — and at the same time to not be entirely alone.” Convenant feels hated. We all do at times. And we’ve all done things that we hope no one ever learns about so we can hide our shame.

Maybe that rebellious part of the reader can identify with Convenant and, through him, live out selfish thoughts and desires and watch with morbid curiosity what kind of repercussions occur.

What makes a lead character a compelling character? Forget about “loveable” or even “likeable.” What do we need to stay interested? What keeps us from shunning him entirely? The writer’s voice? The context?

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