Over break, one of my college friends tweeted me this link to a snippet from an interview with Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, regarding character and likability in literature. Go ahead and click over and read it. It’s short. And it should open in a new tab so you can easily come back when you are finished.
If you were too lazy to click over, basically Handler is ranting that a character need not be likable in fiction. Here’s the short version: “Characters are in books; you’re not going to have lunch with them. Moreover, the best books are full of trouble, so the characters are either in trouble or causing it. Most people aren’t likable in such situations.” And I think we can all agree that Count Olaf was as despicable as villain as there ever was. Now the short segment of the interview with Handler doesn’t make clear whether he is talking about some characters, all characters, heroes, or villains, or if a character needs to be likable at all times in order to be deemed “likable.” But having read 10 of the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events, I would argue that his three young Baudelaires were quite likable. Troubled, yes. Faulted, yes. Unfortunate, yes. But all remained moral during their kerfuffles with the Count. So while Handler may say that likability doesn’t matter, he still achieves it — at least in the main characters in the works I have read.
And so as a young adult author, I will choose to do as he does and not as he says. And as a reader, I will seek books with a cool-sounding plot or a fantastic cover because I’m betting I’m going to find a likable main character. A hero may be ugly on many levels, but I’ll bet he or she will also be someone hopeful. Someone somehow special. Someone who I like to watch figure things out. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a book with a unlikable main character that did not in some way become redeemed. I CAN name quite a few who started off as a complete bitch, but then turned around. Those aren’t my favorite books, but I’d still call a character who has a whisper of a hope for humanity, and changes for the better, a generally likable character, simply because there is SOMETHING to like. I believe we as readers are constantly and fervently looking for that as we go along our bookish ways –that we have high threshold for pain — that we are forgiving of obstacles, flaws, and unfortunate events. Especially if we readers are children.