All of this raises a question I've been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen's (and many other authors') characters, which is that they are "unlikable." I confess, I've grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we're all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are "nice" and which kids are "mean." It's a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
(Warning if you go to the link: the club is discussing Franzen's Freedom and may contain spoilers.)
It's a great question for writers. What if you want to write about a character who is unlikable, or annoying, or deeply flawed in ways which might alienate your readers? Certainly, many famous and iconic characters are neither nice nor entirely relatable: think Humbert Humbert, Heathcliff, Harriet the Spy, Hamlet. Flaws are essential to those characters--they make them who they are, and make them interesting.
My knee-jerk response, as a writer, was that it doesn't matter if a character is nice or likable. I was thrilled that Laura Miller found likability concerns "naive." I bristled at the idea that "likability" should be a concern while writing, particularly at the expense of creating realistic, nuanced, complex characters.
But. Maybe likability is often conflated with relatability. A 100% nice and likable character is boring and alienating, but a mean character can be alienating, too. Relatable characters don't have to be nice, or mean, all the time--and they are interesting. Relatability is important because it connects the reader with the story and compels him/her to keep turning the pages. Try reading about an abhorrent main character after 50 pages--with a few exceptions, it's tiresome. People are so busy, and there are so many books to read--if you can't hook your reader somehow, you will lose them. Writing relatable characters is a good way to hook your reader.
A great example from my recent reading: Elspeth in Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is not a nice person. At times, she's charming and likable; other time, she's horrifying. Yet there is enough of a balance of relatable actions with shocking ones that it's easy to identify with her (at least partially) and want to read more of her story. Elspeth is complex, and trying to solve the riddle of who she is is part of the appeal of the book.
What do you think about likability? Do you have a hard time reading unlikable characters? Writing them?
*Understatement of the century.