Characters, Gender, and Likability

Yesterday I followed a couple of links from Twitter and read these two pieces: “Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters” from Kelly Jensen at Stacked and “On Liking Characters” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal (SLJ). The Stacked post linked to Laurel Snyder’s post “Boys Will Be Boys, And Girls Will Be Accommodating.” Together, these pieces make the point that in focusing on “books for boys” (boys are generally more reluctant readers than girls) we do everyone an injustice.

If boys only ever read “books for boys,” they may never discover that they like other kinds of books as well. Those of us putting books into the hands of growing readers can’t underestimate them; we ought to encourage them to stretch and try something new. At the same time, “girl books” tend to be pushed to the sides, sending the message that they are less important. “The best solution,” writes Snyder, “would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves.”

If there’s one thing The Hunger GamesDivergent, and The Fault in Our Stars have proved, it’s that boys will read books that have girls as the main character. (As for the author’s gender, it’s not something I remember ever paying attention to much as I was growing up, and I don’t pay much attention now, either; this is borne out in my reading stats. But in the above examples, those incredibly successful trilogies are written by women.)

A character’s gender also affects their likability, as Burns points out in her piece. Some readers are quick to label girl characters unlikable if the character acts in a nontraditional way. But a likable character isn’t the same as a good one (i.e., a well-written, realistic one). Here’s my response to Burns’ piece:

The most important thing about character is believability. Are the character’s actions believable? Is there an internal consistency? Does the reader understand the character’s motivation? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the author has probably created a good character: recognizably human, with some flaws and some talents.

Likability is a different issue entirely. Personally, I would be bored reading about likable characters all the time, or if all characters were binary, either likable or unlikable – protagonist/antagonist, hero/villain. Real people are more complicated than that.

As Claire Messud has pointed out, the likability issue does affect female characters (and female authors) disproportionately; it’s more common for readers to criticize female characters for being unlikable than male characters.

My friend Anna has also written about the “books for boys/books for girls” issue, both at YALSA’s The Hub and on her own blog. On The Hub, she wrote, “…it doesn’t matter if a book is ‘for’ a guy or a girl; the gender of the intended audience tends to get all mixed up when you factor in the power of a good story. Boys like stories; girls like stories. Readers in general like stories” (emphasis added). Anna added to this thought a few days later on her blog, asking, “What About Books for Girls?” She wrote,

“Readers are readers. If we could just take off the gendered lenses entirely, I think we could serve our readers better. Let’s focus on writing, reading, and recommending stories that are true (in the manner of Truth, not necessarily a nonfiction story), that matter, that touch the soul, that are real, that show the varieties of human emotion and experience, that are maybe even an inspiration. Let’s do that instead of focusing on the gender we think might like the book the best. Books for girls are books for boys, and books for boys are books for girls. It’s all just stories.”

A skilled author, male or female, can write excellent, believable, well-rounded characters of any gender. Let’s try to focus on getting great stories into the hands of all readers.

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One thought on “Characters, Gender, and Likability

  1. Pingback: Weekly Recap| Mar 23-29, 2014 | Oh, the Books!

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