Everyone wants to be liked, right? If you get down to the nitty gritty of hard truths, life is easier if people like you. If you doubt me, just think about how hard it was walking into a classroom when you were the new kid in town. It’s easier to be liked. We don’t have to devote any time or effort questioning our actions or our words if the room is smiling and hanging on your every quip and anecdote. Being liked greases the wheels in work, at social events, and in some instances, at Thanksgiving dinner when you’re around relatives that only remember you as that kid who screamed and ran around the table as they were trying to relax after too much pumpkin pie last year…or was that twenty years ago?
It’s easy to relegate likability to a weakness, something people lean on when they don’t have the courage of their conviction, when being liked is the end, rather than the means of achieving goals…be they as simple as wheedling the car keys from a nervous parent, or that promotion you really aren’t positive you can handle, but, what the hell? Likability is something everyone barters with daily, hour to hour, giving it up here if it holds you back, retaining it here just in case you’ll need it later. Sometimes we get it right and everyone likes us, allowing us to relax. Sometimes we’re not successful and we acquire enemies, or fall out of favor, then life becomes hard. The currency of human interaction is power, money and beauty, but for most of us, all we’ve got to work with is likeability.
Is it any wonder readers want their characters to be likable?
As a writer, it took me a long time…I mean, a really long time…to grapple with that reality. I wanted my characters to be “real”, and to my mind, that meant they wouldn’t be Cinderella in the castle, aided in her chores by bluebirds and little animals in the forest. My stories didn’t get past the slush pile in publishing houses. An argument could be made I was sending them to the wrong publishers, but let’s just say I was sending them to the publishers I wanted to buy my books. And they weren’t wrong. I was.
Now, my conversion to writing likable characters wasn’t overnight, and I came to it kicking and screaming, until I read one of my favorite authors and found one paragraph where the character was unlikable doing an unlikable action. It kicked me out of the story. I stared at the paragraph and thought to myself, wow, the editor missed that…because we all know our editors save our bacon when we’re too close to our work to see its flaws. Then I thought of the accepted belief (or rather, I’d been assured by editors) that when a writer is popular enough, they can write whatever they want and still get published. It triggered the thought that this famous writer had done just that…she wrote what she wanted, and in this instance it was a main character being unlikeable. Guess what? I didn’t like it.
I’ve been reading romance since I was a tween. Obsessively. I started writing romance in middle school during a “rest period” where I was supposed to have my head on the desk. No one thinks they are “liked” in middle school. It never occurred to me that what I was so drawn to in these novels was how people “liked” the heroine. And if they didn’t, these supporting characters were bad people who no one liked anyway. The hero knew better. The hero more than “liked” the heroine, he “loved” her. Happily-ever-after.
Romance genre novels are excoriated in our culture for their “formula” tropes, but you can find these same tropes in Greek plays that were written as far back as 429 BC and beyond. Is Fifty Shades of Gray any more scandalous than Oedipus the King? I contend it isn’t. So that leaves us with the “likability” issue.
Category Romance genre characters must be likeable.
Even their flaws must be likeable. There is an old job interview trick: When asked what is your greatest weakness, choose a strength and sell it as a weakness. Oh, I tend to arrive early and stay late. That makes the other employees resent me for being so conscientious. This reality drove me nuts. Just the idea of being “limited” by this established expectation was enough to make my hackles raise. And I wasn’t alone. Under the harsh lens of critical review, it’s easy to see how “likeability” can be used as an excuse to sideline value in category romance novels. They’re all the same. Everyone is likeable. But I was wrong, and critics dismissive of category romance are also wrong. Is every little black dress the same? No…they’re not, and neither are category romance novels.
Just as Eskimos have fifty words for “snow”, romance writers through the ages, from Lady Gregory to the present-day middle-schooler, (who as I write this is now penning her first romance in study period when she should be “resting”), have shown there are infinite stories to be told, and yes…I like mine likeable.
Kris Rafferty was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After earning a Bachelor’s in Arts from the University of Massachusetts/ Boston, she married her college sweetheart, traveled the country and wrote books. Three children and a Pomeranian/Shih Tzu mutt later, she spends her days devoting her life to her family and her craft.