I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of fictional characters and “likeability.” Probably because I’m writing again, but also because it’s a topic dear to my heart, since so many readers found Anne, in Place Last Seen deeply unlikeable (go take a look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me). Patrick and I used to laugh about it, because we both thought I’d pulled my punches and had made her sympathetic, or at least much more sympathetic than in her earlier incarnations. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she was greeted with a hail of criticism because I’d already weathered a couple of years of graduate workshop populated by writers doing Katherine Mansfield-esque odes to their idyllic childhoods, and whose consistent response to Anne was “no mother would do that!” (A response that indicated to me that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with the character.) At any rate, I didn’t want her to be “normal” — what would be the interest in that, either as a writer, or as a reader? I wanted her to be odd; to be Anne.
So I was Googling around when I came across Emily St. John Mandel’s terrific essay at The Millions, In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, an essay that caused me to fire up the Kindle and download Bad Marie. It’s a terrific read, which is such a pleasure these days. a book that really sucks you in and in which many things actually happen, and that has characters in whom you become deeply invested. Marie does indeed do some very “bad” things, but Marcy Dermansky does such a good job writing her from the inside that you get sucked in, and nod along in agreement that of course, Marie’s is the only logical course of action. She makes her sympathetic without necessarily making her likeable. You always doubt her — especially since so many other characters tell her how bad she is. It is that seed of doubt that lurks, no matter how much one might be rooting for Marie that that made me feel the book pulled it’s big punch. I won’t give away the plot point, but there is a moment very late in the book, after you’ve seen Marie act in many impulsive and unwise and even vengeful ways, where she comes right to the precipice of doing something truly monstrous. And while the naive reader part of me, the part of me that really does believe somehow that characters are people, and who comes to care about them (the part of me that still feels guilty for breaking Jonathan’s leg for plot purposes at the end of Place Last Seen), while that reader was glad that Marie didn’t go over the precipice, the cold-hearted novelist in me wishes she had.
No one writes books like that any more. Books that take a character all the way over the edge. (Or perhaps no one who writes like that can get them published, another discussion altogether.) I was trolling around in the Paris Review’s newly-opened interview archives and in David Mitchell’s interview he talks about reading Nabokov, and trying to figure out what he was up to:
I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it. Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages.
There’s a corresponding problem to the “likeability” problem (and not that all women must have pink high-heeled shoes on the covers of their books) and that’s the flip side, the total monster — at it’s best, you get someone like Dostoyevski, at it’s worst, you get Hannibal Lecter or American Psycho, books that are only about an unredeemable character, that plumb the depths and claim, by doing so, to be breaking new ground. Those aren’t the unlikeable characters I’m interested in — the ones I’m interested in are like that family member that you can never figure out, or the friend about whom you continually find yourself saying “how could she do that?” Someone who seems just like us, but who isn’t — and it’s that difference that makes it interesting. What makes someone like that tick? Are they really “bad”? I love the exploration of that murky ground, and I especially like it when the author resists the urge to “heal” the character, resists the therapeutic narrative of our age. They’re hard to find though, which is why I find myself turning back to Elizabeth Bowen, or Mavis Gallant, writers who had their gimlet eyes firmly fixed on the flaws of human character.
So readers, in the comments, tell us who your favorite “unlikeable” character is, and why?