Dispatches No. 11: Joan Leegant on Unlikable Characters

Posted Wed, 3/25/2015 - 2:03pm by  |  Category:

Dispatches Series GraphicThe Approval Factor: Must We Like A Story’s Characters?
by Joan Leegant

A writer revising a first novel recently confided to me that a friend had read her draft and complained that she couldn’t relate to the not-so-nice maternal protagonist. That same week, a student in a workshop objected to a character’s acceptance of her husband’s alcoholism. The story was exploring the complexity of love in a long marriage; the reader thought the wife was engaging in psychologically unhealthy behavior.

Both situations raise the question: in order to enjoy a work of fiction, must we like the characters? “Relate” to them? Approve of their conduct? Which begs a deeper question: Should fiction validate our experiences or moral stance or world-view? Or is fiction’s aim to evoke lives (seemingly) different from our own, lives replete with bad choices, self-destruction, and wrong turns—not to mention outright selfishness and evil intent?

It seems too easy a question. Of course literature should explore unappealing people, we all say. Without villainous characters, there’d be no Lolita, no Crime and Punishment. Without insufferable characters, there’d be no Great Gatsby (think Daisy), no (some say) Catcher in the Rye.

Yet the idea that we should like or connect to or approve of fictional characters for a story to succeed has taken hold. It’s there in the language of workshops, book groups, Amazon reviews. In a 2010 article in Salon about Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom titled “Why must a novel’s characters be likable?”, critic Laura Miller responds to the “unlikable” complaints:

“I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are ‘nice’ and which kids are ‘mean.’ It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature. James Wood, in his book How Fiction Works, wrote that this complaint implies that ‘artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of—or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.’”

Of Franzen’s characters, Miller says: “Patty is not nice. She does some bad things, and she can be grouchy and bitter. I wouldn’t necessarily want her as a friend, but then that’s not really an option because she’s not a real person. She’s a literary character—which means it’s not imperative that we take a moral stance on every single thing she does. Literature is an experiment of the imagination, and if we don’t try to leave behind our contemporary compulsion to pass judgment on everything and everyone when we enter into that experiment, then we are the ones who lose out.”

How do we lose out? Writing and reading are exercises in empathy. We see life through another’s eyes, stand in their shoes, and thereby enlarge not only our understanding of the world but our capacity for compassion. While the wife of the alcoholic should probably not tolerate (or the dreaded “enable”) her husband’s decades-long drinking, could we not imagine doing the same if our partner had saved us from worse behaviors in our own shameful pasts (as in the story in question)? If we don’t want to read about a not-so-nice woman, might that be because we don’t want to be asked to empathize with such a person, not because of a flaw in the writing?

Literature’s job has always been to disturb. (“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” someone once said.)  It is also a way to find out how life is lived in our most secret selves. Literature can talk about things we don’t tell our friends, our families, even those we are most intimate with. In this way, it helps alleviate our isolation and grow in compassion. Which may be the highest moral stance of all.

Prompt: Start a story with an unlikable character and see where it goes. Allow the person to remain unlikable throughout.

Dispatches is a weekly posting on our blog that is written based on meetings that take place in our writers-in-residence office. Make an appointment with Joan for fiction or nonfiction advice on her scheduling calendar.