What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Likeable?’

Reading Reynje’s very thoughtful and well-written post is what inspired me to write this! Be sure to check her post out 🙂

I will never hesitate to say that I can be a person with a rotten personality. I can be mean, mocking, angry, and grumpy. I can be a person who people don’t want to be in the same room with. I am not like that all the time, of course, but there are days when the struggles I face frustrate me and make my good mood go bad, causing me to take it out on other people.

When I am like that, I highly doubt that anyone would call me ‘likeable.’ So saying that my whole personality is likeable would be lying.

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After pondering about that fact, I started to wonder what readers mean when they say a character is likeable. Many reviewers, including me, use the word likeable to describe a character they liked or felt an emotional connection to. But do we ever think about what a disservice that description could be to the characters?

In fiction, most readers want characters that are human. We want them to make mistakes, to be flawed, to be real. We want them to be angry, scornful, and mean at times, just like us. Heck, some characters are very flawed, sometimes bad people like Chelsea Knot from Speechless or Flick from How to Lead a Life of Crime.

And because they act human, we like, even love, them. But saying they are likeable is not accurately describing those characters. Because if you were to meet them awhile walking on the street, would you really want to be their friend? Probably not, unless you met them when they developed into better people.

Of course, the word likeable is totally subjective. And there are characters who can be described that way. But for the characters that I am talking about, the characters that are very flawed and human, I don’t think that saying they are likeable is completely accurate.

So what do we mean when we say a character is likeable? Well, in those times I slip up and say a character is likeable, I normally mean that, well, I liked them. I might not have liked them if I actually met them on the street, but seeing the world through their eyes caused me to like them. People might have their own meaning but that is mine.

Oh, and I am also having misgivings about the word unlikeable also…

I am not trying to insult anyone with this post. In fact, I would love it if you tell me your opinions on what a likeable character is in the comments! I would love to discuss this with you!

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20 thoughts on “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Likeable?’

  1. Awesome post! I can be mean, sarcastic, condescending, or just plain rude, so I wouldnt really call myself the most “likable” person on earth 😛 But anyway, great post idea.

  2. I believe I use the word “likeable” in reviews occasionally, too, but I try to stop myself because, as you point out, it doesn’t have a particularly clear definition. Even if we just mean “I liked the character” that’s still not particularly descriptive and probably won’t help our readers judge if they would like the character, too.

    To some extent, I want to say “likeable” means the character has some redeeming qualities. They may be flawed or human–but they’re not the villain of the story.

    Sometimes by “unlikeable” I mean the character is clearly flawed, but the other characters and the narrative voice are trying their hardest to tell me the character is wonderful. For example, if the character is not bright, that’s fine. But if the character is clearly not bright, based on the decisions they make in the book, and yet they’re the valedictorian of their fictional class and all the other characters are fawning over them, then I’ll be annoyed.

    • ‘Likeable’ is a hard word to avoid using, I think. It might be a word with a vague meaning, but I still find myself typing it on accident 😛

      I think of the meaning of the word ‘likeable’ like that, too. Even if a characters has terrible flaws, I can still like them. Thus making them ‘likeable’ 😛

      I have spotted some of those ‘unlikeable’ characters you describe. They definitely grate on the nerves most of the time.

  3. Nice post! I am never really sure about words in English but to me somebody who is likable is someone who’s easy to like but not necessarily a good person. I often find my self rooting for the bad guys because they are mostly full of character but perhaps that is a little selfish..

    I’m willing to forgive any mishaps for my own entertainments sake 😉

    Or maybe, like as we all have a darker side that needs some saving, I might be rooting for them in the hope they might be saved.

    • The word ‘likeable’ has a ton of different meanings to it. It just depends on the person… But your definition is very close to mine 🙂 I, too, love villains who are full of character. It’s very hard to not love them! And yes, the hope of them being saved from the darkness is part of the reason I ,among many others, love villains 😛

  4. I definitely use the words “likable” to describe characters, but I think they don’t always have to be likable to be good main characters. I think(after several years of pondering this)I’ve decided that my main characters need to be likable, sympathetic, or interesting. They can be unlikable, but if they’re still sympathetic or interesting, then I’m probably still interested in the story.

    • I totally agree with you! Characters don’t have to be super nice and friendly to be good characters. In fact, the more flawed a character is, the more I am probably going to like him/her. As long as I find them interesting or sympathetic, I’m satisfied.

  5. Good points! I think when I say likeable, I mean likeable as a character but not necessarily as someone I would befriend. In some cases that is the same thing but now always. However I hate when characters are are perfect, no one is (except me, LOL) , I need to see flaws to believe in them.
    BookishTrish @ Between the Lines

    • Thank you 🙂 Your meaning of likeable seems to be similar to many other people’s who are commenting. There are many characters who I like but wouldn’t want to befriend. I wouldn’t call them likeable, but I still like them…

      Perfect characters can be pretty annoying. Especially when you know that you are the only perfect person in the universe 😉 Flaws are key part of characterization, to me.

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  7. Wow!.. What an awesome topic, Lottie. I say a person is likeable when I think I can tolerate them but consider them to be “not great or good”… They are just ok. I mean this for both real and fictional characters!

    • Thank you! Hehe, you definition is a little different from mine. I call a person likeable if they are super friendly and nice 😛 But it is true that ‘like’ can mean ‘just okay,’ also…

  8. I don’t really have a problem with calling a character (or a person) likeable. After all, I’m not saying that that character or person is *always* someone I’d want to be around but that they are someone who, on balance, are more often likeable than not.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂 I don’t think that calling a character likeable is a bad thing, especially if he/she is. in fact, a person who people like to be around *most* of the time. I just think that, since ‘likeable’ has so many different meanings, it’s best to describe characters in other ways.

  9. The word likeable is not what I look for in the characters I read. Most of my favorite characters are snarky and plane rude, so I guess that’s just not my thing. To me, if a character is super duper likeable, there’s a chance it might be boring aswell( In my experience)

    • Snarky, rude characters are also the characters I seem to like best. As long as they are portrayed as such, of course 🙂

      Perfectly or near perfectly ‘likeable’* characters can be a bit boring to read about…

      *Gosh, it’s hard to avoid using that word 😛

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