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Wednesday

Should Your Characters be Likable?

Touching on this matter of one or more characters turning a reader off, I want to say a few things. You NEVER have to worry whether or not the reader "likes" your main character--or any of your characters for that matter. You only have to worry that the reader "knows" enough about your character to have an emotional investment in what happens to her. Readers who put down books because they don't like the characters are not very good readers, so you don't want them anyway. I've heard editors at major publishers say they do not want a particular book because the character is not "likable," so the philistines are on the march and it's clear the woods are burning. But it's a rigorously stupid idea that we should "like" the characters we read about. If that were actually true, we could instantly eliminate fully half of the world's great literature and forget about it, starting with Richard The III, and coming forward to Portnoy and "Rabbit" Angstrom.

I worked really hard to make the main character in A Hole in the Earth a 39 year-old case of arrested development. And I've had people tell me they threw the book across the room they disliked him so much. One former teacher (and grandmother, she hastened to tell me) said, "I don't want to waste my time reading about such a person." I said to her, "What do you want? Stories about wonderful people and the nice things they do and think, and where they went to do them and all the things they saw and what they ate?" Really serious fiction, humorous or not, is about real people--human, flawed and quirky people--in real trouble and it traces what they try to do about it, or not do. It isn't about success, or goodness, or badness, or justice or mercy, or love, or kindness, or cruelty or bestiality, or any other thing. It's about life. All of it. Good and bad. And it does not concern itself with whether or not the reader is either comfortable or happy. It only concerns itself with what is true, pure and simple. John Updike once said that the action of reading is so private, and such a quiet exchange between writer and reader that as writers we have an obligation to be as truthful as we can; as truthful as we'd be in our own thoughts to ourselves.

I am so tired of the pea-brained idea that the reader has to be made happy or pleased by what we write. Readers who believe that are people who make demands on their reading: they say things like, "I only read mysteries," or "I like detective stories," or whatever. They are narrow, usually not very interesting, and what they say and think about other kinds of work is almost always not worth listening to. We should let our reading make demands on us; we should read as widely and eclectically as we can, as many different kinds of books as we can: poetry, fiction of every stripe and kind, non-fiction, biography, history, anthropology and so on.

It is how we prepare as writers.

If I’m reading a novel about a young woman named Elizabeth, I will care about her if I feel like I know her. I don't have to be a woman, a young girl, or even American, to respond to her. I will want what she wants because SHE wants it; I will fear what she fears, because SHE fears it; I will hope for what she hopes for because SHE hopes for it, and so on.

Here are six basic principles to remember and apply in order to read wisely and well:

1.) An author is usually NOT his narrator, or any of his characters.

2.) An author does not put things in his story or poem to stump the reader. Or to “get a point across.” What we find in stories and poems—the metaphors or symbols, or themes or whatever—comes from a waking dream, the author’s unconscious mind at work. Most authors don’t insert secret meanings or messages any more than you insert those things in your dreams. When you dream, what is there, is there. You respond to it by dealing with its possible meanings, without asking yourself what you intended. You didn’t intend anything. You didn’t put anything in your dream on purpose. You simply dreamt something. The author doesn’t intend anything either.

3.) You don’t have to like or approve of a character to identify with him or her.You only have to be engaged in what happens to the character. We become engaged in the characters of a work of fiction the more we know about them. Rembember the O.J. Simpson trial? We were interested in that not because our interests are puerile, (if he were an obscure plumber who lived out there we never would have heard of him or the crime) but because most of us felt we knew him--or at least enough about him to be interested in what happened to him.

4.) Most authors work very hard to make their characters real, human, quirky and alive. And, in some cases, deeply flawed. The character’s flaws are not the author’s flaws. I have had people tell me they put a book down or threw it across the room because of what a character did or said in it. This is a profound act of closed mindedness and misunderstanding about the purposes of literature. We do not read literature so that it will present us with characters we approve of, who say things we like to hear and tell us wonderful things about ourselves, and how beautiful and perfect the world is; we don’t read literature to recognize our own vision of the world. Literature is about people in trouble, and it is usually trouble where action makes no difference; where we are helpless. And if it is worthy literature, it is peopled with characters who we don’t like and who say things we don’t like to hear.

5.) Most novels and poems are not autobiographical. Unless study proves otherwise, we should assume a writer writes with his experience, not about it.

6.) We don’t have to approve of what a writer’s vision is to appreciate it. One does not have to be an athiest, to appreciate the work of Albert Camus, who was. One does not have to adopt Camus’ rejection of God, in order to understand that he is doing that. It is foolishly ignorant to reject Camus’ work because he rejects God; or to condemn Hemingway’s novels because he was “macho.” It is rigorously stupid to disapprove of Kate Chopin’s work because she was a feminist, or Ann Rynd’s novels because she was a materialist. I hope I don’t have to tell you how small a mind has to be to reject Walt Whitman’s poetry because he was gay. We read to understand the other, as well as ourselves in relation to the other. We do not read to have everything we believe about the world confirmed, but rather to test what we believe against all of its opposites and oppositions. We read to widen our awareness of the world, not to constrict it. In other words we read to learn not to name things so readily, and to see what we can see, and we judge a work of literature based on what IT is, not on what WE are.

2 comments:

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  2. This is brilliantly put and I wholeheartedly agree and will share. The need for a sympathetic character is an unfortunate reality indeed. One can only hope the tide will turn someday and those of us who agree with you will be ready!

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