Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Do Characters Need to Be Likable?

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently appeared on a panel on historical fiction at the AIW annual writers' conference in Washington, D.C., and that I had a couple of thoughts I didn't get a chance to voice at the session. My last post focused on the wisdom of changing facts--historical or geographic or otherwise--when writing fiction.

Now for my second thought, which also relates to both historical and non-historical fiction. While discussing the challenges of writing historical fiction, I mentioned the difficulty of making characters who hold very different beliefs from our own sympathetic to a modern reader. Only I didn't say "sympathetic," I said "likable."

I then got a question from a woman in the audience. "Do you think your characters have to be likable?" she said.

This was a weird moment for me. Here's the back story: my agent and I have gone several rounds now on whether the main character in my second novel needed to be more "likable." Frankly, I thought she was likable enough as originally written. But what I saw as "edge," my agent saw as bitchiness and whininess. My agent was very emphatic about the importance of making the character likable (and making her husband and her daughter likable as well). And--given that my agent's experience in publishing is far greater than mine--I reluctantly went about softening my character's edges and eliminating some of what I thought were her best lines. But I continued to ponder the issue. In fact, about six months ago I went to a panel consisting of some of my favorite writers--Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Cathleen Schine--and raised my hand to ask them the very same question the woman in the audience had just posed to me.

Alas, I didn't get called on when I raised my hand, so I don't know what those writers would have said. I do know, though, that my two fellow panelists at the AIW conference took the view that characters (and I guess we're talking here about protagonists, really) DON'T need to be likable. One of them brought up Satan from Paradise Lost, who of course steals the show. Yeah, but--as I pointed out in passing--no one likes a "perfect" protagonist, like God. Plus, Milton gives Satan a dynamite speech.

It's possible that the rule that your protagonist has to be likable has more force in commercial than literary fiction, although sometimes the line between those two isn't that clear. My second novel, according to my agent, can be categorized as "commercial women's fiction," albeit (I hope) somewhat high-end commercial women's fiction, and maybe that's why my agent was so insistent about the likability issue. There do seem to be different rules in the realm of commercial, and certainly of "genre," fiction. Romance novels, for example, generally follow a prescribed formula. But once you're in the category of "literary," you can pretty much do what you want, as long as you do it well.

But regardless of the type of fiction at issue, I do think readers need to want to spend time with the main character. If they find the main character boring, for example, they'll probably put down the book. What if they find the main character repulsive? Well, someone might say, look at Humbert Humbert in Lolita: an unrepentant pedophile. What could be more unlikable than that? And yet we're happy to spend time with Humbert, because Nabokov managed to make him, through his wit and his peculiar vision, irresistible. That's what I meant when I said at the panel that I thought that the author has to work harder when the protagonist isn't likable, at least in the conventional sense.

What I actually had in mind when I spoke at the panel was the fact that one of the two main characters in my novel A More Obedient Wife was a slave-owner. The challenge for me was to write realistically in the voice of someone who owned another human being, and who thought that was an acceptable thing to do, without alienating 21st-century readers who (like myself) find the concept of slavery to be anathema.

At one point I have my character Hannah Iredell musing about the female slave she owns, Sarah, who--like Hannah herself--desperately misses her absent husband. I have Hannah thinking that it's difficult, sometimes, to remember that Sarah has feelings just as she does. To me, this was an accurate reflection (or what I imagined to be an accurate reflection) of a slave-owner's attitude. After all, how could you justify owning another human being if you attributed to them all the thoughts and feelings that you yourself experience? To acknowledge that Sarah did have these feelings seemed to me a mark of humanity on Hannah's part, a reflection of her underlying ambivalence about slavery. But one of my early readers recoiled when she reached that line, thinking that it made Hannah morally repugnant. Fortunately, other readers don't seem to have had that reaction.

Maybe "likable" wasn't the right word--it probably came into my head because of my recent back-and-forth with my agent. But what IS the right word to describe what we look for in a character, what keeps us reading? One of my fellow panelists suggested "compelling." That's certainly the word that you're likely to see in rejection letters--as in, "I just didn't find the characters compelling." I got a couple of rejection letters like that for my second novel, early on, and I just shrugged. My agent, on the other hand, told me, "It's simple, you just have to do this one thing--you just have to make the characters compelling." But when I asked her how I could do that, she replied that she couldn't possibly tell me. (Ultimately, it turned out to be a matter of changing the plot. Who knew?)

Compelling, likable, sympathetic. None of these words are particularly specific. And, of course, one person's "likable" (or "compelling") is another person's boring or repellent. As with so many things in writing fiction, it's pretty subjective. Bottom line: if you can find one person who thinks your character is compelling--AND who is in a position to publish your book--then maybe you don't have to worry so much about the people who don't.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Changing the Course of the Mississippi River

A few days ago I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel on historical fiction at the American Independent Writers Washington conference, held at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. My co-panelists were Barbara Esstman, author of The Other Anna and Night Ride Home (and a former instructor of mine, years ago, in a novel-writing workshop at The Writer's Center); and C.M. Mayo, author of the intriguing The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire -- based, like my novel, A More Obedient Wife, on the lives of actual historical figures. I'm grateful to the moderator, author David Taylor, for inviting me to join them.

I don't know how the audience felt (we were the last panel of a day-long event), but I would have been happy to go on talking and listening and answering questions from the audience well past our allotted fifty minutes. I had a few thoughts I didn't get a chance to give voice to. But luckily, I have a blog!

So ... here's one: how much freedom should a writer exercise in playing around with historical fact? One of my fellow panelists, Barbara Esstman, opined that novelists should feel free to make up, or alter, whatever facts they want to, and mentioned that in her novel she had changed the course of the Mississippi River by five miles. It's all in how you present it, she argued. You can make anything believable, if you handle it the right way.

True enough, but personally, I'm loath to fool around with facts, or at least the ones that are fairly well known. Once, years ago, I had the opportunity to hear William Styron speak, and I asked him basically the same question about the interplay between imagination and truth. Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, answered that historical novelists should give free rein to their imaginations with one important parameter: they should be careful not to contravene known historical fact.

Why? Because it can be distracting to the reader. At one point during the panel session, Barbara also cited John Gardner's famous dictum that a novelist should create for the reader "a vivid and continuous dream." It seems to me that if your narrative includes a detail many readers know to be untrue, they may suddenly be shaken out of that dream. "Huh?" they'll say. "That's not how it was. What's she (or he) talking about?" And pouf, the spell that you've carefully woven with your words will be broken.

Styron's advice made sense to me, and I tried to abide by it in A More Obedient Wife. I changed some little-known personal details -- for instance, I omitted a few siblings belonging to a couple of characters who came from dauntingly large families -- but I worked within the general framework that history had given me.

It seems to me that geographical fact should generally be treated in much the same way. I once read a novel set in an area I was familiar with, and I was constantly distracted by "mistakes" the author had made about where things were. Maybe she'd made those changes deliberately, although I can't fathom why. I wasn't focusing on what she presumably wanted me to focus on -- the characters, the story -- because I kept calculating distances and drawing mental maps and asking myself what she was talking about.

Of course, as with everything in writing, there's no hard-and-fast rule here. It's always a balancing test. If you feel a fact is sufficiently obscure that no one will really notice if you change it, maybe you'll want to go ahead. Or even if it's not that obscure a fact, you may feel the change is sufficiently important to your story that it's worth risking the distraction. Or maybe, like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, the whole point of your story is that it's counter-factual. And, as with everything in writing, it's all subjective. Maybe some readers won't mind at all if the Mississippi River isn't where they expect it to be, and maybe some writers don't care if they shake things up a bit.

But speaking just for myself, I try to stick with the facts and let my imagination play around in the gray areas -- of which, in the stories I'm drawn to, there are plenty.