Some of the least likeable people I have ever met spend a lot of their time telling me that my characters need to be more likeable. I was in a meeting with a very successful film Producer recently and she said that while she loved my script, she felt that the character wasn’t likeable enough. I asked her what she meant. She said that she couldn’t put her finger on it and she didn’t want to remove all of his darkness, she just wondered whether I could make him lighter, more obviously loveable. I asked her whether she meant before he killed his wife or after. She said ‘right up until he kills her.’
They insist that an audience will turn off / leave the cinema / put down the novel / leave their families / start on a murder spree, if the lead characters aren’t likeable. As a writer, the quest for likeability is the bane of one’s life, perhaps because, as a group, we are seemingly anything but likeable, but also because, as a term, it’s incredibly difficult to define. What do we mean by likeable? Am I likeable? Are any of my friends likeable? That Sri Lankan man who reads the BBC news seems likeable, as does the man who lives in my street and always gives sweets to my kid. Then again, my mother always said Jimmy Saville was likeable and he, it turned out, was…not. I once met Tony Blair, he was wonderfully likeable, a more charming and engaged man you could never wish to meet but he went on to sanction mass murder, so this whole thing can be tricky to get right.
In my world, in the world of films, likeable is a must, something that you absolutely need to find in your characters in order to sell the script.
The producer wasn’t the first one to question my characters’ likeability, in fact she was one of many. I was confused, anxious, who wants to write unlikeable characters. I started thinking. It’s what I tend to do when I’m confused, which is probably the reason I’m confused in the first place. I appear to have that in common with those murderers they interview on Death Row who insist that it was only when the fifteenth knife wound went in that they started thinking about what it was they were actually doing. Not as dramatic obviously, but it’s the same mental stalling - one moment you’re out food-shopping for a dinner party and the next, you realise you’ve come home with a bottle of bleach, some condoms and an apple…and there is no dinner party.
The confusion I was feeling was whether it was just film Producers who are so terrified of losing money that they want everyone to be likeable, or it was everyone. Wouldn’t we all like to be that likeable? Surely most of us are, aren’t we? It certainly appears that way. How often do we see a neighbour of a serial killer interviewed in the news making it clear that the man in question seemed like a good bloke, ‘very likeable in fact.’ The truth, it transpires, was that the man they shared likeable pleasantries with every day was in fact incredibly unlikeable, unless we’re defining likeable as picking up young men, fucking them, killing them and eating their rotting flesh. So seemingly most of us are using the cloak of likeability to hide the dark truths that lay inside. That would mean that being likeable is actually something we shouldn’t trust. We should eschew the likeable.
Until I started being lectured by Producers on the subject, I hadn’t thought about such issues in a very long time, probably since childhood, but recently I have thought about very little else. Forget fiction, what about real life? My real life. What if people don’t like me anymore? Could that be the reason very few people call me and ask me to go out and drink with them? How can I be expected to write likeable characters when clearly I’m not? I’ve taken my eye off the ball, I’ve got on with my life instead of keeping tabs on my increasing unlikeability. Is that even a thing? It must be, I have it. Shit I used to know people, hang out in pubs all day and share witty badinage with good people, likeable people. Are they suffering like me? Are they somewhere else? In a place surrounded by kids, bills and cholesterol testing kits, coming to terms with the fact that no one out there likes them enough to go out drinking anymore? Except, obviously, for that one bloke who’s so unhappy he’s grown a beard.
As a kid, I always thought that being liked was a good thing. It felt clear early on that if other kids liked you, you were less likely to be kicked or spat at or hit. Don’t get me wrong, you still were kicked and spat at, but only by the really unpleasant kids. The pleasant kids would leave you alone and get on with developing their magic cloaks of likeability.
But it wasn’t just the desperate need to avoid being kicked in the face that led to me needing to be liked. Being liked definitely became a theme in my life following an incident that took place when I was five years old.
We were living in Ipswich at the time. My father was an actor and so we lived anywhere that had a theatre that would employ him. This generally meant we spent a good deal of time in small towns, often near the sea, and often full of people who were either bored or mental. We had been in Ipswich a little while when Dad finally got my mum the thing she had always dreamt of having, namely a little house of her own. Obviously it wasn’t her own - it was rented from a man who had just over a thousand houses of his own, but to her it didn’t matter. She could decorate it and play with it and walk around it and tell her sisters all about it. She was deliriously happy. It made for a pleasant period in our lives. As I remember it, Dad would be around all day, playing with me and teaching me valuable life lessons, like never trust a man who works in a bank and remember that anyone who supports Spurs is probably evil. Then at night he would go to the theatre to play Vershinin or Captain Pugwash or whatever it was they wanted him to do, and my mother would walk me around the house telling me how when she grew up she had to share her house with seven siblings and an Indian mother. I never really knew why her mother being Indian made it any harder than had she been English or Spanish but she said it nevertheless.
Then one night Dad happened to be at home, something about an understudy run. So we were having a rare evening as a family. My memory is that Bruce Forsyth was on the television but I imagine that anyone trying to write about their childhood memories going back as far as William Of Orange would be safe to assume that Bruce Forsyth was on the television. The show involved families making fools of themselves and as far as I remember, we were loving it. It was wonderful seeing my mother and father laughing. It’s something I have loved seeing all my life, watching my father make my mother laugh was a beautiful thing, as more often than not he seemed to make her cry or punch him hard in the face. I remember feeling happy, secure. At five I was just starting to get what this whole family thing was gonna be about. Then, out of nowhere everything changed. A brick came cascading through the window and onto the carpet, the section of the carpet on which I was sitting. It struck me on the temple and I fell over, presumably screaming. All hell broke loose. My dad jumped up and ran to the window. My mother was screaming blue murder and I was joining in. Dad had seen the guys that did it. They were on bikes. He ran out of the house and chased them down the road shouting things like ‘come back here you fucking cunts.’ Not something you heard a great deal in Suffolk cul-de-sacs in the early seventies. Had he caught them he would have killed them. Fortunately for everyone involved he didn’t. Instead, he caught himself on an abandoned garden rake and pierced his abdomen and nearly tore a testical clean off. They thought he was angry before?
Meanwhile at home, my mother was in shock. She had read a note that had been attached to the brick. It said very simply: ‘Pakis out.’ I asked what that meant and she told me that some people don’t like brown people, ‘you know people like your Grandmother,’ yes, the one she had kept telling me it was hard to live in the same house as. She said that some people are, what is known as, racists. That means that they don’t like people who are different to them. They’re not very nice people. I was baffled. So why were they throwing bricks through our window? We’re not brown people. My Dad was from Aberdeen for God’s sake, with his clothes off you could barely see him, and I certainly wasn’t brown, I was slightly blue if anything. I asked her whether these racist people had a problem with slightly blue people. She told me to shut up and listen. The truth is, she said, ‘some people think we’re Pakis but we’re not.’
-‘We’re not. We’re Indians, well, half-Indian, you’re barely Indian at all.’
I was five, this level of insanity was beyond me. I looked back at Bruce who had just been comically offended again and was looking at the camera until people laughed, which they did. ‘Some people,’ she went on ‘just don’t like us. You just have to get used to it.’
So being liked suddenly became real, an actual life-saving necessity. It felt to me that life must be easier lived liked than not liked. However, as I grew into adulthood and now middle age I have started to shift. It did me well for a time but then it started to work against me rather than for me. Being likeable started to become a pain in the arse. ‘Oh get him along, he’s very likeable.’ The trouble with being that bloke is that you end up being one of two things - tedious or disappointing. No one wants to be likable in middle-age. They might as well be saying ‘oh get him along, he’s a fucking dullard with no meaningful opinions or thoughts on anything.’
It’s hell from start to finish. So having thought about this whole likeable thing, I can come to one conclusion. If a Producer wants a character to be more likeable, it’s because they have no idea what it actually means, and if you’re ever described as likeable in your actual life, then it means you have nothing of interest to say. So now, whenever a Producer asks me whether my character is likeable, I have a simple response… ‘I don’t know, are you?’