The BBC series Morse, based on the mystery novels by Colin Dexter, won the “Best British Mystery Series of All Time” title in a Radio Times poll. A recent Facebook post about the win made me think about the admonition authors hear that novels must have likeable characters.
Inspector Morse is not “likeable” in any real-world sense of the word. He’s morose, arrogant, perpetually angry, and treats his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, with contempt. But obviously, readers and viewers love him. I’m a fan myself.
So what exactly do people mean when they demand “likeable characters”? Likeability is one of the main thing reviewers and beta readers talk about. Lots of one-star reviews simply say, “I didn’t like any of these characters.”
But the enduring popularity of Morse shows that mystery readers don’t want sleuths to be likeable in the sense of “pleasant to be around.” Maybe this is because the genre was defined early on by Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is not the sort of person you’d want for your BFF. Ditto Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Nero Wolf, or Adam Dalgliesh. But they are beloved mystery heroes, all.
However, if you put those guys in a Romance novel, the heroine wouldn’t give them a second look. In Women’s Fiction, they’d be the dreaded abusers the heroines want to escape.
So the idea of “likeable characters” really depends on the expectations of the genre you’re writing.