Does a character have to be likeable?

First aired on The Sunday Edition (23/06/13)

Nora, the protagonist of Claire Messud's latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, is a 42-year-old Boston schoolteacher. She's good at her job, a dutiful daughter and a caring friend. But under that "nice girl" demeanour, Nora is actually seething with anger and frustration. She's not likeable -- but does that matter?

Messud created a stir when she responded sharply to an interviewer for Publishers Weekly, who commented that she wouldn't want to be this woman's friend. Messud rejected the notion that likeability should be a consideration at all. "The question of likeability, it seems to me, is a very peculiar question, a recent one, and I'm not sure where it comes from and I'm not sure what it means," she said in a recent interview on The Sunday Edition.


Messud responded to the interviewer by listing a number of characters she loved but didn't consider likeable, including Hamlet and Oedipus. "Many characters are not people you'd want to go to the beach with," she told host Michael Enright.

So what is likeability in terms of literature? "That's what I can't figure out," Messud said. She pointed out that even in real life, likeability is very subjective. When it comes to fiction, what matters more to Messud is that a protagonist is "an interesting character or a real and compelling character whose problems and dilemmas are in some way intriguing. That seems to me a much more relevant question." She went on to say that perhaps when people say they don't find characters likeable what they actually mean is that they didn't find them interesting.

She noted that one of the discussions she's had around the issue is that "in television in particular there are many wonderful anti-heroes and many women anti-heroes." Messud cited the CIA agent on Homeland played by Claire Danes, and the characters on HBO's series Girls. "These aren't simply positive, good, likeable characters and we're totally compelled by them."

What role does gender play in this? After the issue sparked a lot of media attention, The New Yorker held a forum on the likeability of characters. Margaret Atwood was one of the authors who took part, and she pointed out that female writers get asked about their characters' likeability more than male writers, and "it's a ridiculous question."

For Messud, it's not just that women can't be angry in novels. "I think women can't be angry anywhere," she said. "We don't live in a time or a culture that has much tolerance for anger, period." She relates this to the fact that in the U.S., there are 350 million guns. "So anger's very scary in a world where there are 350 million guns."

But expressing anger is particularly unacceptable for a woman, Messud added. In the workplace, a man loses his temper, he simmers down and things go on as usual. "When a woman loses her temper in the workplace, it's deeply upsetting and she's seen as hysterical or shrewish," she said.

In The Woman Upstairs, Messud set out to "write the story of someone's interior life. Of what is going on behind the mask, if you will." She went on to point out that Nora "is not in life a whiner, a complainer...But she has a secret life and that secret life increasingly diverges from the day to day," Messud said. "I actually think that all of us live in our interior lives and to some extent we're all making up stories about what's going on."

Does a character have to be likeable for you to want to read their story? Let us know in the comments section below!

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