Reading a novel means immersing oneself in the society of the characters the author has created, so it's to be expected that writers and readers often grapple with the question of likability. Are writers drawing protagonists we find appealing? Would we aspire to be them or to befriend them in real life? And should fictional characters always meet to this standard?
Recently, however, a question posed to Claire Messud about whether she'd like to be friends with the main character of her recent novel seemed to tap a wellspring of resentment -- both in Messud herself and in much of the literary community. Her bristling rebuttal, in an interview with Publisher's Weekly, implied that such a question stemmed from her sex, and the sex of her book's protagonist, as she listed a number of notoriously unfriendly male characters written by male authors as evidence that friendliness was beside the point. Elsewhere in the interview, Messud specifically notes that "if it's unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it's totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman."
Are readers less accepting of outwardly repellant female characters? It seems unsurprising, if so; women as a group are held to higher standards for pleasantness than men. Why would readers be able to separate themselves from this mostly subconscious double standard while engrossed in a fictional world? Until women are not expected to fulfill social expectations of kindness and warmth, we will not be much more friendly toward female characters who fail to demurely exemplify the term "the softer sex."
This contributes to an expectation that author Meg Wolitzer described as "fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel 'comfortable' around -- what I call slumber party fiction." We expect a range of likability amongst our male protagonists that makes the "slumber party" standard completely irrelevant. Who has ever wondered if they'd like to have Pip, Hamlet or Holden Caulfield over for margaritas and gossip? We accept that some men, and thus some male characters, will be more aggressive than kind, more selfish than nurturing, more cunning than honest -- and we're ready to admire those qualities rather than question whether they'd be good friends.
Indeed, while Humbert Humbert and Raskolnikov, both violent criminals, are fairly obvious examples of men we'd avoid in real life, many male protagonists seem palatable enough at first glance -- unless we hold them to the more exacting friendship standard. Would you be bffs with any of these iconic men from literature?
Odysseus (The Odyssey, Homer)
Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons
Odysseus' triumphant return to Penelope at the end of The Odyssey would be more satisfying if he'd had as much integrity as his wife. After years of freely hooking up with every hot goddess and nymph he stumbles across, he seems to feel perfectly justified in violently killing all of his wife's suitors the moment he's set foot on shore. His adventures, and dramatic homecoming, make for a great story, but they don't make him a very good husband, or a very good guy.
Romeo (Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare)
Our young hero commences the play by bemoaning his unrequited passion for a lady named Rosaline. This changes the moment he sets eyes on our heroine, Juliet, and decides she is the woman of his dreams. Perhaps if these two lovers had survived the play, she would have found his wandering eye to be more of a concern than his belonging to an enemy house. Even worse, Romeo's absorption in his love affairs drives him to take stupid risks, like sneaking into a Capulet ball in order to see Rosaline -- provoking a Montague-Capulet showdown that leaves his friend Mercutio dead.
Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain)
Twain rather brags about his protagonist that "He was not the Model Boy of the neighborhood." While Twain may have wanted to be friends with his hero -- many of Tom's adventures are based on his own childhood pranks -- does he really sound like friendship material? Delightful as his hijinks read on the page, actually being tricked into doing chores for a friend sounds less delightful than abusive.
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Nick Carraway surrounds Gatsby with a warm glow of approval throughout The Great Gatsby, but despite Nick's infatuation, it's hard to see what he gains from the friendship. Gatsby's fixation on earning Daisy's love has left him rather a shell of a person, more defined by his possessions than his conversation or his unique personality. The romance of such a grand passion aside, there's little about Gatsby that makes him an attractive friend.
Tomas (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera)
Tomas is a magnetic figure, an intellectual bohemian with a bold, rebellious streak. He's also a compulsive cheater whose indiscretions destroy his girlfriend (and later wife) Tereza. Though his affairs drive her to nightmares and suicidal thoughts, he chooses to keep pursuing sexual novelty despite her suffering, insisting that his sex life should have nothing to do with their love.
Harry Angstrom (Rabbit, Run, John Updike)
Harry, also known as "Rabbit," falls into the same trap as many idealistic young heroes -- his allergy to social constraints leads him to flee any moral obligations in pursuit of pure freedom and fulfillment. Inevitably, he leaves a wake of emotional destruction, but expects the women he uses to uphold his familial responsibilities while he gallivants around enjoying himself. We all love an unconventional, quixotic hero in fiction, but in real life, such self-absorption and casual cruelty would be poison.
Mitchell Grammaticus (The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides)
Mitchell, a protagonist and authorial surrogate in the popular novel The Marriage Plot, is our most relatable character. His unrequited love for Madeleine seems cute, but he's a classic Nice Guy, maintaining a friendship with Madeleine in the hope that she'll reward him with sex. Most girls could do without "friends" like these.