I was having a discussion with a new critique partner last week about the likable character paradox. Across the board you get a lot of conflicting information, which varies a great deal from genre to genre and from reader to reader. The one I hear most often is: “I didn’t like the character(s); I didn’t care what happened to them, and so I couldn’t get into the story.”
I am not sure if this is a majority opinion, a genre opinion, or a stylistic opinion, but whatever it is, I don’t share it. Maybe this is because I read primarily literary works. I don’t need to feel all warm and fuzzy about characters to appreciate and understand the thesis behind the story. Maybe after so much academic study, I have come to understand that some themes can only be articulated by using a loathsome protagonist. I love deviant and damaged. Call it morbid fascination if you want. When I choose a book to read, sometimes I want to feel connected to the protagonist: I want to relate on some level, be that with a character’s attitude or experience. Other times when I choose a book to read, I want to experience a viewpoint contradictory to my own even if that means I find the characters to be base, depraved, and repugnant creatures. The juxtaposition puts my own view into perspective, and oftentimes if we dredge the depths of our own psyche, we can actually relate to characters we might otherwise despise on the surface. Yes, we feel awkward and uncomfortable when faced with certain aspects of humanity that seem like an affront to our own. That’s natural, and I can see why some readers might avoid such a thing. Me, I like looking my own shadow in the eyes, and apparently literary readers and Horror fiction readers have much less of a problem with despicable protagonists than do readers in some other genres. During my tenure as a reader, I have been exposed to some pretty tasteless characters. Some of my personal favourites are: Hamson’s Hunger, Camus’ The Stranger, Ellis’ American Psycho, Bataille’s Story of The Eye or Blue of Noon, Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, Suskind’s Perfume, and one of the greatest ever written -- Ducasse’s Maldoror whose misanthropic protagonist has renounced conventional morality and decency to such an extreme that the imagery is violent, macabre, and nihilistic to the point of being pure evil. Literary fiction is littered with protagonists such as this. Bukowski and Miller have some of the most reprehensible protags around. The dichotomy of the human condition just makes for an interesting read. It offers a way to experience the darkness with a sense of detachment, and during that process we can examine our own personal philosophies by proxy.
For authors, this is an even more perplexing issue. We want to write our story, and we also want people to read and like the story. We want to write the best book for our readers. It’s difficult enough to put all the pieces together without the ludicrous amount of personal reader diatribe we get bombarded with on the matter. And that’s all it really is: subjective opinion. If your protagonist is an asshole for a reason and his characterization is important to the thesis of your story, then rewriting that character in a more charming tone might actually make the work a confusing muddled mess. So, what’s an author to do? Do we stick with likability, or do we write the truth even if it’s ugly. Admittedly, I bring this up because I struggled to a great degree with my novella The Thin Wall. None of the characters are all that endearing. They are militant when it comes to defending their chosen lifestyle -- a lifestyle far from the societal “norm.”And they are arrogant and somewhat self-centred. They have written their own moral code and feel superior having done so. But even though their external view is somewhat tainted, within the confines of their social clique, they behave with genuine love and trust. Not everyone will be able to relate to or embrace these characters even though they are very, very real. The reality of them might be unpleasant and some readers just don’t like to read unpleasant characters or situations. I felt, after much late night languishing, that to soften them would have ruined the meaning behind the story. I am also not the only author who feels this way. Often to bolster my confidence, I like to think back to an article earlier this year with Zoe Heller: “Heller was a bit dismayed to learn that some readers found "there were no sympathetic characters," that "they didn't want to spend time with them," or that they "were not inspiring in any way." To which Ms. Heller replied: “"I don't write books for people to be friends with the characters," said Heller, 43. "If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party. The point of fiction is not to offer up moral avatars," she added, "but to engage with people whose politics or points of view are unpleasant or contradictory."
Ms. Heller wrote the wonderful novel Notes on a Scandal, which I thought was brilliant. There you have two of the most repugnant female characters ever to hit fiction, and readers like me welcome them with open arms.
So tell me readers and fellow authors: How do you feel? Do you agree with the likability factor? As an author, are you ever concerned about your characters not being likable, or do you just write the character honestly even if they are vile. As a reader, are you willing to embrace a book with a less than savoury character, or do you snub a book because of them?
The art this week is a photograph of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man. Offensive to the eye, yes maybe. Can we feel sympathetic? Definitely. But how sympathetic would we be if the external was turned inward? I can't say that I sympathized with Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, but on some level, I could relate to his view on society, and I could understand how the disgust he felt for it could totally and completely transform itself into homicidal hatred.