Do you think that authors really dislike their villainous protagonists as much as they claim to?

6a00d8341c69f653ef019affcdee3a970cI started reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is about the machinations of a very wealthy and dishonest and villainous widow. And I love her. She’s pretty much the best. But Trollope does not love her. He’s constantly talking about how evil she is and shit.

In fact, lots of Victorian novels are about very evil characters, and they always have this very moralizing tone. For instance, Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp has to be one of the most vivid characters  in literature, but Thackeray clearly very much disapproves of her and is constantly giving you these sly little asides (an authorial intervention that was much more allowable in Victorian literature) about how awful and unfeeling she is.

But I don’t believe him. Thackeray constructed the novel. He chose to write her. I don’t see how a person could write an entire novel about Becky Sharp without, in some way, thinking that she is awesome. In some ways, I feel like he just inserted the judgmental tone so that his audience would let him get away with writing the novel. It’s like how you can write a crime novel about a character who gleefully kills and steals and cheats and rapes…as long as they get their comeuppance in the end.

Personally, many of my protagonists are awful people. I don’t really intend them to be that way; it’s more that I just don’t think about morality when I’m writing, which means that all my work exists in a pretty amoral universe. I would never consider having a character not do something because it’s “not the right thing to do.” But I’ve learned to disguise that, and to play tricks on the reader in order to artificially build sympathy. For instance, if you put the protagonist in a pitiable situation, they’ll come off more sympathetic. And if you have them do something good for someone early on in the story, then the reader will give them leeway. And if there’s a perception that the protagonist is fighting against some greater societal evil, that can also help  (this is often the reason why crime novels get a free pass, for instance).

But, to me, all of that stuff is just tossed in because, for some reason or another, most readers can’t sympathize with characters that are not, in some way, good.

For instance, at AWP, I was talking to someone about that interview in which Claire Messud talked about how she didn’t think characters need to be likeable. In that interview, the primary character under discussion was Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. And I have to say…I didn’t find her unlikeable at all. I sympathized intensely with her feeling of being abused and toyed with and ignored. And so what if those feelings mostly came out as inchoate rage? What’s wrong with that?

What I think people ignore about “unlikeable” characters is how likeable they actually are. For instance, I found myself dazzled by Scarlett O’Hara and Humbert Humbert. They’re amoral wretches, but they’re actually exactly the sort of people that one would want to be friends with, because they seem like they’re charismatic and they always have something to say.

Actually, Scarlett O’Hara is one of my favorite characters, because rarely has there been a heroine with fewer redeeming characteristics. And yet the novel revels in her. She doesn’t really come in for much, if any, oppobrium. If anything, the novel gradually reveals that Ashley Wilkes and Melanie whatserface are hothouse flowers who can’t really exist outside without the privileges accorded them in the antebellum south. And Scarlett comes out looking pretty good in the end. Her ruthlessness, the book argues, is exactly what a person needs to have if they’re going to survive.

The mark of a good writer, I think, is that meaning comes through even when you don’t intend it to. Take Dickens, for instance. He wrote the broadest characters imaginable, but sometimes you can’t really tell whether they’re scoundrels or not. Take Mr. Micawber for instance. He’s perpetually penurious, and he constantly borrows money without intending to pay it back. His family suffers because of his flightiness. And he eventually ends up transported to Australia. But he still gets a very loving portrayal in David Copperfield. And, in the end, it’s hard to say whether he’s a hero or a villain.

Still, there’s a level of esotericism there. I don’t think that most readers are sophisticated enough to hold opinions about a character that are different from what the book tells you. Most readers will say that Mr. Micawber is a great guy, and that Harold Skimpole (from Bleak House) is awful, even though the two characters are pretty much exactly the same, because Dickens tells you that one is good and that the other is bad.

So when you’re writing a book, you have to determine a surface interpretation of the character (will I portray them sympathetically or unsympathetically?) and then allow the opposite interpretation to remain buried in the text, for the benefit of readers who care to dredge it up. And somewhere in the intermingling of the two interpretations, you end up with a more complex and true portrait of a person.

Quick thoughts on books that I haven’t read in a long time

  • gone_windI’ve only read Gone With The Wind once, when I was in 9th grade, but it made a huge impression on me. I still remember its strangely hopeful ending. There was something so perfect about Scarlett deciding to go back to Tara and regroup. It was exactly the right note on which to end the book. That was also the book that taught me that heroes don’t need to be sympathetic; they just need to be interesting. Scarlett was unintelligent, selfish, and cruel, but there was something riveting about her: she demonstrated how far you can get in life on sheer ruthlessness.
  • I was thinking the other day about Voltaire’s Candide. It’s a famous book, but not as widely-read as it should be. I think this one book that’s seriously suffered from being labeled ‘literature.’ Whenever you hear about it, it’s described as some deep philosophical tract on the education of the youth. But that’s not it at all. It’s a super-fun romp. It’s way more Arabian Nights than Bhagavad Gita. And it’s also weirdly bawdy and horrifying. People die in monstrous ways and if they don’t die, they degenerate and become haggard shells of themselves. It’s definitely worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.
  • One year, I spent so much time reading Saul Bellow and I’ve retained very little of it. It’s all blended together and left me only a mental picture of a slovenly but handsome man of letters who wanders around making caustic judgments on the people around him. Anyone who’s going to read him should just start with Ravelstein and then maybe not go any further. It’s not only one of his shortest books, but it also feels like his kindest and his least self-absorbed.
  • I wish George Orwell had written more nonfiction books. I enjoyed Homage To Catalonia, Road To Wigan Pier, Down and Out In Paris And London, and Fifty Essays much more than I enjoyed any of his novels (and I enjoyed his novels quite a lot). No one explains stuff quite as gently and kindly as he doess
  • On Wednesday, I saw The Silver Linings Playbook, which has a scene where the main character reads the end of A Farewell To Arms and then gets angry and throws it out the window. I loved A Farewell To Arms and I think its last line (one of the most famous last lines in literature) is an exactly perfect one. That line should not have been anything else. It’s deeply affecting and it, obviously, added something to the toolkit of modern literature. But that last line is also very upsetting, because it feels cheap. You have a character who’s cool and collected and slightly shell-shocked and then, at the very climax of the book, you pull away from him and refuse to pierce that dignity. It feels like the book can’t bear to ever allow its protagonist to ever seem less than utterly manly. And I don’t think that books should be solicitous of their characters in precisely that way.
  • John Steinbeck is so weird. I still find it hard to believe that the author of Grapes of Wrath could’ve also written Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. They’re all about impoverished people, but Grapes is so righteously angry in a way that the other two simply are not. Tortilla and Cannery almost kind of glorify a life of poverty and portray poor people (or at least certain subsets of poor people) as being more genuine and more authentically in touch with life. But Grapes says exactly the opposite: it’s about how poverty destroys families and shreds human dignity. Ever since I read Tortilla Flat, I’ve never been able to get excited about Steinbeck in the same way. It’s a good and interesting book, but it’s also repulsive and cold-hearted one and, honestly, more than a bit racist. I still haven’t read East of Eden. Every description of it makes it sound rather unappetizing to me (a retelling of Adam and Eve using a ranching family in 1930s and 1940s Salinas, California), but I really do need to get around to that someday.
  • Other strangely-unappealing books that I’m constantly picking up and putting down and which I plan on getting around to sometime in the next forty years:
    • Crime And Punishment
    • For Whom The Bell Tolls
    • Ulysses
    • Gravity’s Rainbow
    • As I Lay Dying and Light in August
    • Middlesex
    • Song of Solomon and Beloved
    • A Passage To India
    • Mrs. Dalloway
    • Lord of the Flies
    • Invisible Man
    • Where I’m Calling From