I read a lot of reviews on Goodreads and YouTube, from fans in the fantasy and science fiction genre. And there is an emphasis on ‘likeable’ characters.
At first glance, this makes sense. The reader is spending time with the characters. It helps that they are pleasant. Yet for readers who want more to bite on, or for writers, this trend of ‘likeability’ in speculative fiction is rather unhelpful.
First off, what is considered ‘likeable’ now will change in the next fifty years. Sure, you may find Jaime Lannister charming now, but future audiences may not share that reception. Also, ‘likeability’ is limiting for writers. If they are told that their protagonist can’t do certain actions because that’ll make them ‘irredeemable’ that limits what they can do with the character.
I have no problem with authors wanting to craft likeable characters. However, I’d argue that it shouldn’t come at the expense of solid characterisation or realistic development.
People are messy, and fiction ought to acknowledge that. Also, we must understand that not all authors are interested in creating ‘likeable’ characters.
It’s borderline childish to always expect authors to write ‘likeable’ characters with zero moral ambiguity. I can’t name a single human being to exist like that. Whilst fantasy and science fiction can be escapist, it shouldn’t dumb itself down. Remember: escapism does not mean fulfilling a child’s black and white worldview. Nor does it mean giving what the readers want.
It’s okay for authors to do the unexpected, to not meet conventions, and to challenge the status quo. We should encourage that! It makes for richer literature. No, not every ‘convention’ needs to be subverted. But when authors opt to, that shouldn’t be grounds for punishment.
I’ve seen readers take ‘likeability’ a step further. They demand that characters remain morally pure, or good for no selfish motive. These readers also lean towards villains, that are so over the top evil, and have no human motive. This was apparent when the Hunger Games prequel was announced to have President Snow as a protagonist. I’ve also seen weird reactions when writers such as JK Rowling dare to make unsympathetic characters like Severus Snape heroic.
I’ve discussed Game of Thrones’ ending in previous blog posts. Daenerys’ ending was an intriguing dive into complicated morality. Although poorly plotted. It was disappointing when the show argued that Daenerys turned ‘villainous because of her blood.’ It was weak, because it lacks ambiguity.
History is full of events that cause debate and strife. To this day, people discuss the legitimacy of nations, cities, and individuals. Wars are fought over ideas. It’s tempting to view everything in black and white, but nothing in our world is like that. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
-The Gulag Archipelago
There’s a weird unwillingness among younger readers to not challenge themselves. No, I’m not talking about reading ‘complex’ literary books. And not all young readers are like this. I believe fantasy and science fiction are complex genres in their own right, and can challenge us.
That’s why I love Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and the film Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. Those works of fiction weren’t concerned with ‘likeability’ but with crafting art.
Yes, speculative fiction is mostly commercial in the eyes of literary critics. That is a shame. Science fiction is a ripe genre for philosophy and rich discussions on humanity. My point being, there should be space for science fiction and fantasy outside of a commercial bubble of ‘likeability.’
Some of the most remarkable speculative fiction characters are ambiguous. My favourite example is Wesley from Angel, the spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although the characters are ‘champions’ they battle their inner darkness. They make decisions that viewers will disagree with. And that’s fantastic. It makes for a marvellous viewing experience. Best of all, it increases the philosophical merit of the show.
This movement towards ‘likeable’ characters in science fiction and fantasy is rather new. There are countless works of speculative fiction that do not feature ‘likeable’ characters. But what they have is interesting characters.
And it’s far better to have a unique character than one that exists because of ‘likeability.’