Are characters supposed to be likeable?

It’s a question that keeps making the rounds. Women, in particular, seem to get the short end of that stick as characters. As humans too, if we’re going to be honest.

In the past ten years or so, I think I’ve put down fewer than five books because I didn’t like the main character. I’m talking about characters with depth, not books I put aside because the main character was essentially a playing piece designed to be moved through the plot. I say fewer than five, but only one stands out in my mind, a character I couldn’t stand because she was so completely true to life, and true to a personality type I didn’t want to delve into at that time.

For the most part, give me a character that has a well-crafted internal landscape, no matter how different it is from mine, and I’m willing to go the distance with them. I’m rarely looking for best friends when I read a book. Instead, I’m looking for a world outside my own, one peopled by folks who are not the same as me.

I love my characters. All of them. Even the terrible ones, the ones that do irredeemable things, the ones I hope no one ever reads and thinks yeah, I’m totally cool with that guy’s actions. The ones I love the most are the flawed ones, the ones who don’t make the right choices, the ones for whom love–of friends, of family, of lovers–grows in a tangle of thorns. I love their mistakes and betrayals and sorrow. I love them when they give up, and when they don’t.

Do I like them? Would I want to sit down to dinner with them, share a bedroom with them, take a six hour car ride with them? Not many of them.

Likeability isn’t really my thing, as a writer or a reader. In my catalog of unpublished stories, I have one about a woman, a mother, choosing career over her children in a huge way. I’m not that person–I chose a life that revolves around my children and homeschooling–but I can write about that choice, can believe, absolutely, that that choice is the right one for that character, and, by extension, for some women. It goes against the likeability factor for mothers in fiction though, who often exist as either saints or monsters.

I suppose I could go a step further. I said that I look for other people, other worlds, when I read, but that’s not always true. Sometimes I look for myself. Most of the time, I don’t find me. My character is not a likeable one. I have depression, for one thing, and that shapes how I see things, how I do things, in a way that many people find upsetting or irritating or dull. My interior landscape is my own, full of monsters and challenges and good and bad, and were I one of my own characters, I would love all those pieces, but I wouldn’t make the mistake of seeing them as likeable.

One of the most wonderful things about reading is empathy. We cannot sit inside one another’s heads, not currently, but through reading we can reach into a character’s private spaces. We can be all those people we are not, perhaps even be ourselves, and we can learn to care for them. But that can only occur if two things happen. The first–writers must write characters that live, that have all those pieces, good and bad, that are real, not only likable.

And the second is that readers must read them, must be willing to take that great stretch that begins with show me who you are, all of you, all those things I might not understand, not at first. Show me, and I will follow you.