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?