My friend Jim -- you remember him, with the hair? -- he brought up a dilemma he's having. His novel made the rounds of his writing group, and nobody liked it. The problem, he suspects, is the main character, who is an utterly unlikable guy.
Now, from a writing standpoint this is a success, because he wrote an unpleasant character and people find the character convincingly unpleasant. From a reader's standpoint, not so much, because who wants to let such a person into their heads for the time it takes to read a novel?
But it cuts both ways. Literature would be nothing without a disproportionate share of weirdos, cranks, and no-goodniks among its sum of characters. Books about pleasant people are terribly dull and usually illustrated and printed on boards for very young readers. So how does a fellow make a story about someone thoroughly awful into something the reader wants to pursue?
I'm dealing with this myself in my latest novel. At the center of it is a teenage boy and his hard-bitten father. The old man is almost incapable of compromise or empathy. He's incapable even of hope. So I have to strike a balance between the father and son. Otherwise -- too much father, nobody has any fun reading. Too much son - we don't understand how the father can cause events to occur as they do.
And there's my answer --my very provisional answer, by no means a law, or even good advice -- to Jim's dilemma: you need a counterpuntal character. It doesn't work for everybody, nor does it work all the time. In fact, my book isn't working yet. I haven't got the balance right. But I know eventually it should answer the purpose.
What one needs, in other words, is a sympathetic, often subordinate or hapless character, someone who acts as our proxy and guide throughout the story. Look at Theroux's Mosquito Cost, for example. The father becomes increasingly dangerous and mentally ill as events unfold. But the narrator, a child, is able to place his manic parent in the context of what passes for normalcy in his family. The child reminds us there is, even in the full face of madness, sanity. Treasure Island by Stevenson. The main character of the book is surely Long John Silver. But he's a hideous sort of person, really. It's the very decent cabin boy through whom we observe events that keeps all the nasty pirates bearable.
Every Hannibal Lecter needs an agent Starling.
Exception: if the story is narrated by the reprobate himself. Think of The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. These intensely charismatic, thoroughly heinous characters carry the novels to great success even though they're insufferable swine. Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald is another, filthy example, and one I heartily recommend if you haven't read it. As long as we're inside these rotten people, looking out, half the fun is witnessing the world through the fractured lenses of their minds.
There are other methods, too, but these are the approaches to dealing with highly unsympathetic characters with which I am directly familiar.
I don't pretend to know if this will answer Jim's difficulty. Sometimes we get through a project and the simple fact is, nobody likes it. That does happen. We call such efforts "valuable experience," then move on bitterly, broken in soul and body. But most often, it's a question of finding 'the way in,' which often as not is a matter of someone in the supporting cast offering to be our guide.
3 weeks ago