Likable Characters – What is that, even?

akio sucks ugh yuck

Akio, you are not likable.

Something that’s been brewing a bit over the past six months or so in American literary circles (maybe even English-speaking literary circles, honestly; I think I’ve seen a couple British names pop up as well, although I can’t quite recall) has been the lack of necessity for versus the importance of likability of fictional characters. It seems to have sprung from a statement by a female American author earlier in the year that she gave in the wake of having a couple of her characters accused of being unlikable – there was a hint that the likability of the characters was brought up in the first place at all because the author was a woman, not a man, and there is that cultural emphasis on the importance of “nice” as being a quality women and girls possess. I had thought the debate had died out a bit until a couple of weeks ago when it resurfaced on the back page of the New York Times Book Review in a pair of very short… well, not quite essays, perhaps statements, by a couple of authors regarding the idea of likable characters as being necessary as indicative of a lowbrow approach to literature or not.

I haven’t really seen this as a topic of discussion in anime nerdery circles, but as this is an anime blog, it only seems proper to at least ground my own windbaggery about the matter in anime and manga, even if I do work my way through between one and five books any given week (this past week I read three).

In all the debate I’ve seen, though, I feel as if an underlying point is being missed – what counts as likable, anyway? What is it to be likable?

I don’t think its necessary for characters to be likable. I hate Akio Ohtori’s guts, but Revolutionary Girl Utena doesn’t exist if he doesn’t exist, and a lack of an antagonist would undermine many, many other stories. Of course, antagonists themselves aren’t always unlikable… whatever it is to be unlikable or likable. At the same time, the idea that something is lesser for not “daring” to have ‘unlikable’ characters is a crock of crap itself. And in the counter direction, thinking that something is bad simply because the characters aren’t ‘likable’ is nonsense, too. It seems I take a live and let live approach in this area.

But, here – likable. What is that?

Well, it varies, of that I’m sure. Some characters are the sort I would never want to meet in real life, even as I adore them in fiction. In Shiki, my two favorite characters were Megumi, the girl who becomes a cruel, self-centered serial killer when rendered vampiric, and Muroi, the ineffectual, suicidally-depressed priest who only steps past his inaction to bury a cleaver in someone’s head. To me, these two are likable as characters, but they’re not pleasant, nice people, certainly. At the same time, then there are the characters I quite like and whom are decent human beings, such as Fumi Manjoume.

I was tempted to say that, then, what is the key to likability for me is in how interesting the characters are, except that wouldn’t explain why I dislike Akio so heavily. Akio is certainly an interesting birdling, but I haaaaaaate him. HAAAAAAAATE. So who knows?

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5 Responses to Likable Characters – What is that, even?

  1. argonseal says:

    Criticizing a work for not having enough “likable” characters is just silly.

    It is virtually impossible to pin down one exact set of character traits that is considered to be universally likable. One person would find the typical dumb shounen lead stereotype to be endearing while another would find it insufferable.

    It’s by giving our character’s personality more layers of depth and transforming them from plain, boring one dimensional characters to fully realized three dimensional characters can we entertain the viewer.

    To quote from a fellow blogger named Scamp (Though I may be wrong :P).

    “Give me a fully developed, charismatic jerkass over a Yuji everylead the bland anyday” or something along those lines.

  2. supervamp78 says:

    Not liking a character doesn’t automatically make a story bad 9/10 that character isn’t supposed to be liked

  3. David says:

    Quoting someone else (though I can’t remember who), the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy. Finding a character extremely likable (or in Akio’s case, hate-able) is vastly more important than which side of the like/dislike fence you’re on.

    However ‘unlikable’ is a little ambiguous about what it means. Is it, “I don’t like him, Very Much”, or is it, “I don’t care about him at all”?

    From a certain perspective, I can see the point being made as valid (though I’d ultimately disagree with the terminology used). A likable guy that’s not terribly interesting is a far worse character than an unlikable guy that you really can’t stand, and the stereotypical “nice guy” lead is often reviled because simply being likable doesn’t make him interesting, whereas if you’re interested enough to really hate a character, the author has done their job properly.

    Anime often has an issue of setting up the main character as the “audience stand-in” — someone without any strongly distinguishing characteristics that wouldn’t interfere with any given audience member pretending to take their place.

    Then look at, say, Naruto. Regardless of your feelings about the series as a whole, it’s very popular, and that popularity stems from the likability of its characters — the nice (and loud and obnoxious) Naruto, and the ‘evil’ Sasuke. Both of them are ‘likable’ characters; not in the sense of “I like him as a person”, but in the sense of “I’m interested in what happens to him.” One might perhaps attribute a power fantasy to their existence, but neither of them are explicitly audience stand-ins.

    Now, instead, use some generic harem lead. I’m not going to try to pick one in particular, but you know the type. They’re unlikable in the “I don’t care about this person” way. Instead, people are interested in the female characters, the harem, because they actually -are- interesting characters (among other reasons).

    Now, if someone asserts that an author should make an unlikable character, I see it as them asserting that an author should create a character who’s ‘evil’ enough that people care about what he does, and the consequences of his actions. In other words, create an “interesting” character instead of just a “nice” character. It’s just easier to go down that path by forcing one to create an “unlikable” character.

  4. David says:

    I should probably add a note, that the Naruto example was only from the pre-timeskip stuff. Post-timeskip stuff gets a lot vaguer in its application, particularly since I haven’t actually read/watched any of it. So, take it as a very loose analogy.

  5. kadian1365 says:

    Character likability should be measured in the context of how the narrative want to portray the individual. Akio from Utena is the mastermind perpetuating the myth of sex as the key to unlocking adulthood, and the show goes to length to portray him as a womanizer and narcissist, so Utena gets credit for successfully characterizing him as unlikable. Kirino from OreImo is portrayed as a cute tsundere little sister character who shares all the hobbies of otaku the show is aimed at. But she comes off as a spoiled brat who is rewarded with unjust lucky breaks and is all around despicable person, so her unlikability is a failing of OreImo. It helps the argument that Akio and what he represents examines a complex sociological perspective while Kirino is simply jailbait, but the principle of my standards of character likability still stands.

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