Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

“I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless, and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them yet.” -- Boris Pasternak

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.


Jim Murdoch said...

Liking a character has never been especially important to me. I don't think any of my protagonists are especially likeable characters. What gets me about the lead character in my first novel is that even once I've listed off all his faults and failings people still end up caring about him. I know one woman who ended up in tears at the end of the first book – both times she read it. Part of me wondered if I'd written him wrong. I guess that's the difference between show and tell, it's one thing to tell your readers what a pathetic individual your hero is but if you don't show him being pathetic it doesn't register.

I've just finished reading a book set during World War II where the protagonist is a ten-year-old boy searching from his mother and sisters after seeing his father shot before his eyes. It's a very worthy book, thoroughly researched and yet I found myself curiously unmoved by what happens to this young boy and the things he witnesses. I haven't worked out why. I suggest in my review that it was the decision to go with a third person narrative – I couldn't get inside the boy's head – but that's just a guess.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Sometimes a distant third or omniscient third can leave me feeling a bit detached, and sometimes, like with Hemingway's work on occasion, it's the dramatic narrative style that does it for me simply because it's all action and no emotion, so the reader has to infer a lot about what the characters are feeling.

It all depends on the story. Sometimes, I need to be at a distance. I think that's when the narrator's voice and style come into play more so than the actual events.

I get more turned off a book when there is so much overdone objective detail that the plot gets lost in the minutia. That puts a wall between me and the characters because the narrator is too busy looking at the grass.

Shannon Yarbrough said...

Like you, I have a tendency to be drawn to the characters we're not supposed to like, but those are usually the characters I can sympathize with whether the author intended that to happen or not.

Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe comes to mind with its strange and freakish ménage à trois of characters. I fell in love with all of them and it's still one of my favs today.

In recent writing, I've struggled with this argument myself. I worry that readers won't connect with any of the characters because they are so f**ked up emotionally and don't have cliché happy endings, but from people who I have let read rough drafts, I discover they did connect with some because they could appreciate a character struggling with similar demons.

(As Don Henley sings "Give us dirty laundry" in the background.)

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

de Sade said something to that effect. He didn't want virtue, he wanted virtue only after it had almost been entirely destroyed by vice.

Brent Robison said...

This is such a great topic I wish I wasn't sitting in a cubicle under pressure to "be productive." I've struggled a lot with this and other "reader taste" issues, and I'm definitely in your camp, Cheryl Anne. Zoe Heller says it perfectly too.

One thing I've come to realize is that my best guide for what I write is what I like to read. I echo your appreciation of Hamsun, Camus, Denis Johnson, Bukowski, Henry Miller... and add Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. Clearly, "likeability" is not a necessary quality for literary characters. In my case, "vile" may be so far to the other extreme I'm not usually interested in writing it, but I definitely never want to make my protagonist into what it seems so many readers today want: a lightweight movie hero, devilishly handsome, courageous, sweet to children, full of charming one-liners. Blecch.

In trying to capture the "everyman" in my stories, one of my fears is that I may create protags who come too close to, not offending the readers, but boring them. Essentially, the problem is the same: those of us who won't conform to mainstream demands need to find our own readerships... people who see fiction as more than a candy bar offering a quick pleasure fix. Who want a meal full of exotic tastes and long-lasting nutrition (to overwork the food metaphor). Who are willing to trust where they're being taken because they appreciate the artist at work behind the text. Who want to embrace their own shadow.

I could say a lot more about this but... no time. BTW, great choice of a photo! Perfect expression of our need as writers to get at the human heart behind the ugly surface.

Simone Campos said...

I can do "deviant and damaged", in fact I even like it, but some Brazilian fiction (I'm here) seems to base on boring characters. I mean co-dependent, whining women; absolutely plain men madly in love with their ego, and so on. No matter how you try to proceed, you just want to put down that book and go read something else. You just don't want to hear about that uninteresting person anymore. And in most cases you can make out it's not intended by the author. Perhaps it's a matter of development? We'll get there when we get better? Hope so.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Simone, yes, they sound pretty boring as characters, so it all depends on if I can tell whether or not the author is writing a satire or has some other intent. But even the co-dependent whining woman and the egocentric man might be compelling if done properly, and by that I mean they need to have some other intriguing aspect to their personality, a quirk that will make make me want to write off the cliche. Or maybe it's about some other component in the story. A compelling story angle will allow me to suffer a lot of cliche characters. And sometimes, the cliche is necessary.

crucify_brett said...

Complex characters are a joy to read and write. They aren't completely good or completely bad. Life has gray areas and characters with issues can be rich in drama and entertainment.

I realize some readers want a clear black and white, and sometimes I write that, but, man, do I love anti-heroes and tarnished heroines. Who cares if they live, die, or succeed, so long as they thrill me to the core!

Anonymous said...

I'd put it this way: There are as many kinds of appealing characters as there are different kinds of readers. If you know you are writing for a specific kind of audience -- not just a reader of a specific genre, but someone who wants to be told a certain sort of story -- then it becomes easier to write a protagonist that is naturally more interesting to them.

My favorite protagonists are people with a bit of spirit, a bit of humor, and a bit of insight. Or, failing that, any of those two together.

Michael Martin said...

Actually, I like it when a character makes me a little uncomfortable, so long as the writer has done a good job of explaining his, or her, motivations. If the book is well-written and the right chemistry develops between the words on the page and voices in my head, I'll keep reading irrespective of the character's virtue. The trick, I think, is in knowing how to humanize your characters, even when they're the kind of people who deserve to go into the ground without a eulogy.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

My husband was recently listening to an NPR piece on film noir and the "type" of protagonists usually presented in that genre. The consensus was much the same as ours here in this discussion.

People who love art don't need warm and fuzzy: They need compelling. In my own writing, I tend to borrow heavily from the film noir genre, using characters that are alienated and are loaded with existential bitterness. I also use a lot of flashbacks to disrupt the narrative sequence. Combine that with my love of the Gothic and Dark Romantic periods, and well, you have stories that might make people uncomfortable and characters some people might not relate to.

I totally agree Serdar and Michael. Write for your reader and a story is more than just words on a page. If the chemistry is right, I'll adore a monster. I agree with Brett too, but I don't necessarily need them to thrill me, I just need to find them interesting, even if it's in a science project sort of way.