Monday, January 17, 2011

On Sympathy and Literature

Do the protagonists of novels always have to be sympathetic?

Certainly there are examples in literature of protagonists who are hard to like, sometimes even repellent. Just look at Lolita: Humbert Humbert isn't anyone's idea of warm and fuzzy. And while Olive Kitteredge--the central figure in the eponymous Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of stories--is no child molester, she's pretty off-putting.

The artistry of those books is that their authors--Vladimir Nabokov and Elizabeth Strout, respectively--make us care about the protagonists despite their unsympathetic character traits. Humbert Humbert draws us in with his scathing wit; Olive Kitteridge eventually becomes irresistibly poignant in her clueless self-sabotage.

But let's face it: it's a lot easier to engage readers if they like your main character from the get-go. (This is something my agent has been drumming into me vis-a-vis the manuscript of mine that is currently in her hands.) And it's not at all clear to me that I have the talents of a Nabokov or a Strout. So, while I'm not saying my protagonists have to come on like Shirley Temple, I think it behooves me to make sure my readers will basically be in their camp.

That's not to say that a main character can't be flawed. In fact, there may be nothing more unsympathetic than a character who is perfect in every way. Plus, your character needs room to develop and learn a few things--that's what allows for a plot. So, generally speaking, you need to strike a balance with your main character: not too perfect, not too imperfect ... just right.

The main problem I've identified with the historical figure I have in mind for my next novel, Eliza Anderson, is that she was, by our 21st-century lights, a raging cultural elitist who had little use for democracy. As I mentioned in my last blog post, her position may appear somewhat more understandable when you know what early 19th-century American society was like. Still, it's a problem.

So that's her flaw, or at least the main one (she had others too). It seems to me that I need to do at least three things to deal with it. First, I need to make other aspects of Eliza's personality sufficiently sympathetic that readers will be willing to more or less overlook her elitism, at least for a while. Second, I need to establish the circumstances that led her to feel the way she did. And third, I need to make that aspect of her personality change over the course of the novel. She won't become a raging democrat--that would be unrealistic--but she needs to at least begin to challenge her own assumptions.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence of that happening in reality (in fact, there's some evidence to the contrary). But that's okay: this is fiction. True, I try to write historical fiction with a healthy respect for the historical record, but to me this is one area where it's okay to turn my imagination loose a bit. I wouldn't be contravening any known historical facts--something that William Styron once suggested to me as a guide in writing historical fiction, because you don't want the reader pausing and saying, essentially, "Huh?" Beyond that, I think having Eliza change, or begin to change, in this way would allow me not only to create a more sympathetic protagonist but also to say something about what was going on in the United States in the days of the early Republic--that is, that the country was gradually moving to an acceptance of democracy as we know it.

So what will spark this change in Eliza? Since this is a novel, and novels hinge on relationships between individuals, it will have to be another individual. My ideas are still pretty inchoate, but I'm leaning towards giving her a female servant with artistic ambitions that mirror Eliza's own literary ambitions. That would feed into a story-line that is rooted in the historical record: Eliza became embroiled in controversy for her dismissive remarks about mere "workmen" who attempt to present themselves as artists.

The idea of having large historical ideas--like the the tension between elitism and democracy--play out between individuals reminds me of a terrific play I saw last night. It's called Return to Haifa, and it's based on a novella written by a Palestinian author who was assassinated--possibly by the Israelis--in 1972. The play was adapted by an Israeli playwright and performed here in DC by an Israeli theater troupe, in Hebrew. The story is essentially this: A Palestinian couple is forced to leave their house in Haifa when the state of Israel is created in 1948 and, in the chaos, end up leaving their baby behind. A Jewish couple--Holocaust survivors who have lost their own child in the war--move into the house and adopt the baby. Twenty years later the Palestinian parents, having been prevented all this time from returning, show up to claim their child.

All the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis play out between the five main characters of the play. There's plenty of anger, guilt, and recrimination. And yet, the play ends on a hopeful note. Why? Because the characters finally manage to relate to each other as individuals, each one expanding his or her imagination to encompass the experience of the other.

That's what President Obama urged after the recent shootings in Tucson--that we "expand our moral imaginations," that we "sharpen our instincts for empathy." And that's what literature--fiction or drama or poetry--does, at its best: it enables us to be "the other," to see the world through someone else's eyes. Arguably, that's especially valuable when the character whose eyes we find ourselves looking through is someone we couldn't have imagined finding sympathetic. Like Humbert Humbert, or (in my case) a member of the Tea Party. Or, in the case of some Israelis, a Palestinian. And vice-versa.

I'm not saying that if Benjamin Netanyahu sat down and watched this play with Mahmoud Abbas, we'd suddenly have a solution to the problems of the Middle East. But I do think it might be a start.

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