Several days ago I received an email from a woman who’d recently read my latest novel, Bird in Hand. She mentioned that she appreciated my “honesty” – she liked that my characters had “definite real quirks instead of being perfectly lovable all the time,” and discussed her own novel manuscript, currently facing rejection from publishers on the grounds that the characters “aren’t sympathetic enough.”
I don’t know anything about this woman’s manuscript. But the question of what it means to create sympathetic characters, and whether it matters, is an ongoing source of discussion and debate in writing classes and even among working novelists I know. Without alienating the reader, how does a writer create characters who embody the complexities of real-life experience – the petty preoccupations, self-delusions, and misplaced vanities that all of us possess; the qualities that, it could be argued, make us human?
Writing about Robert Stone’s story collection, Fun With Problems, in the New York Times Book Review several weeks ago, Antonya Nelson addresses this question head-on. Noting that Stone “declines to make his heroes ‘likable,” Nelson goes on to say, “The writer pays his reader the deep compliment of refusing to simplify his creations. They are as flawed and sophisticated and complex and conflicted and naughty and tempted and contradictory and brutal and surprising as readers themselves.” Nelson concludes the review by saying that Stone’s stories are not for everyone. “You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages…. [But] Fun With Problems is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.”
The graduate students I teach tend to disdain the idea of the sympathetic character, viewing the entire notion as suspect. “Whether a character is likable or not is irrelevant in literary fiction,” they say. And they have a point. In certain – some might say formulaic – kinds of popular fiction (romantic comedies, detective stories, “chick” or “mommy” lit), the hero or heroine is expected to follow prescribed rules of likability. That is, she should be smart but unpretentious, fallible but fundamentally decent; life has knocked her around, but she remains optimistic and open to the world around her. These rules don’t apply to Robert Stone’s characters; his readers expect to be left feeling a little uneasy as they ponder uncomfortable truths.
But I think that generally what readers want from a character — even in commercial fiction — is something more complex than likability. They want to understand the character’s (or, in the case of memoir, the writer’s) motivations, whether or not they can empathize with him or her. A character’s likability is largely irrelevant. What matters is that the character is richly developed in three dimensions.
In my work as a manuscript editor I have found that there are lots of ways to improve a book that isn’t working, but one of the hardest things to fix is a story in which you don’t relish the thought of spending 300 pages in the central character’s world. There are all kinds of reasons for this: the character isn’t developed enough; he’s too much of a caricature; the author makes him superficially ornery, irritable, and quirky (rarely a winning combination) as a way to incite drama that would otherwise be lacking. Whatever the reasons, these characters are wooden, lifeless. They don’t live and breathe. True, the character may be unlikable. But more significant is that he is not fully developed.
Lots of books are published – great books – with difficult and irascible central characters. These are the ones that Antonya Nelson calls books “for grownups.” But there’s a difference between these books and the manuscripts that languish unpublished because the characters aren’t rich or deep or full enough, their unlikability a problem of the writer’s, not the reader’s.