I’ve spent a lot of time this week reminding myself that I don’t have to be likable. In a way, writing Liana in The Creation Saga has been an exercise in writing an unlikable female character for me. That isn’t to say that I don’t want humans to commiserate with her, or understand her. The opposite, really. I want them to understand all of it and feel that same sort of dysphoria that she feels. I should be able to do better. I must be able to live up to their expectations.
There’s a point, when you are obsessed with likability, where you can slide into this kind of thinking. And it is easy to be obsessed with being likable as a woman. It offers you a sense of protection, however inaccurate that sense is. Likability is a kind of social capital. Politicians rule by it, at least in part. Celebrities live by it. It is a kind of power.
It is, however, fickle as powers go. A person must build their worth on other stuff. Cersei shows us this in A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Arya. Neither of them are cuddly sorts. We might admire Cersei’s competence at times, or her pure madness, but we certainly don’t like her. And while we pity Arya, hope that we would be as strong as her in the same situation, admire her skills and her bloodthirsty nature, most of us would not be able to hold a conversation with her. We’d be appalled when she slit a man’s throat without explanation. She is stunning and devious, not likable, despite the fact that we, as readers, like her.
The most likable character, in fact, is Sansa. In terms of being someone who could have a conversation with you, entertain you, someone who is generally beautiful and, if not kind, at least not cruel, your best bet is Sansa. Despite this, Sansa is usually the least liked character in the books, at least by readers. This is because Sansa has no power.
I may seem to have contradicted myself there, so let me unpack that.
A person’s worth doesn’t come from the likability, much as we are taught otherwise as women. Sansa swallows the princess narrative hook, line, and sinker. She thinks that if she can just be pretty and witty, she will be safe and cared for. She thinks that beautiful people on the outside must also be beautiful on the inside. We hate her for this, because we recognize very early on that the good do not win in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. That good people have already spent the one quality which might help them to survive, which is ruthlessness. But if we met Sansa on the street, we would probably consider her an upstanding girl, a cute little thing. She would be the kind of person we would hope to invite over for tea. We would talk about stories of knights in shining armor and fair queens.
We dislike Sansa not because she is unlikable, but because she has no power to affect her world. She has traded that power for the very likability that we teach little girls like her to strive for every day, with promises that it will protect them.
In some ways, I think Sansa’s character and her development is the most transgressive element of George R.R. Martin’s work.
In my own life, I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate other kinds of power. Not necessarily power over others, but power over myself. I try to be fearless in situations where fear does not help me. I try to be rational in making choices that are best for myself even when those choices may inconvenience others. And, most importantly, I try to quell the need for likability that sometimes comes clamoring out of my gut. When I make decisions to accomplish given outcomes, I recognize that I might be navigating my boat unevenly, listing towards positive reinforcement, begging for someone to recognize my sacrifices. This wastes valuable energy, but it is a human thing, too. We all have inconsistencies, foibles, weirdnesses that make us what we are.
It’s not bad to be kind, to be charismatic. But when it takes you into dangerous waters, you turn that boat around. When your self-worth becomes tied up in how people receive you, you will lose it. Remembering that, as a woman, is hard. Remembering that brief social buoyancy will not protect you from your status as feminine in a society driven by masculine values can be soul-crushing.
After all, it is so easy to want people to like you. But the most interesting people are often the least likable ones.