Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Again with the likability issue

Slate's Claire Dederer gives us the flip side to Monday's post on whether--and why--fictional characters should be likable. Reviewing Amy Bloom's Where the God of Love Hangs Out, Dederer delights in Bloom's ability to make readers love her characters. She goes so far as to make her review a primer on creating lovable characters, though she acknowledges she's not really doing justice to Bloom's gift.

First caveat: once again, I have not read the book being reviewed, only the review itself. I presume someone else has taken care of the blog post suggesting that those of us who read reviews instead of the actual books are foot soldiers in the army of the damned.

Second caveat: I am going to indulge an urge to speak somewhat sarcastically about this review. This sarcasm is simply not deserved. It's just that have issues about "liking" or "loving" characters, which probably speak to my own troubled psyche as much as anything. I taught an entire class on the reasons for, and advisability of, responding to literary characters as human beings. I just think it's weird. And I think we ought question the distinction, at least, and I'm interested in asking such questions through my own fiction. Yet, as a writer, I also want people to love my fiction, which, from all evidence, means making them care deeply about my characters. What does it take to do this? How much of my grumpy soul must I chop off and sell, in order to get with a program that's obvious to everyone else? These are burning questions for me. So anything that smacks of a "formula" for characterization just sets me off...even if that formula is helpful and correct, which I rather suspect Dederer's may be.

Anyway, here is my willfully nuance-free take on the formula for creating lovable characters:
1. Start with perfect human.
2. Add significant but understandable flaw (gout, mild alcoholism).
3. Refrain from judging character for this flaw, both via authorial voice and other characters. (Bonus if other characters are specifically attracted to the flaw.)

The more I think about this, the more I believe it *will* work. Consider: is this not the way most of us would strive to see the world? When we're being our best selves, don't we see (or want to see) people as basically good, with understandable flaws for which we do not pass judgment? So maybe reading Bloom gives us pleasure because she lets us be those best selves--people who give others the benefit of the doubt, who are intrigued or amused, rather than enraged, by people's faults. Books like hers give us practice in open-mindedness and forgiveness, and remind us of the pleasure such a worldview can bring. It's better to be this way. Gilead is Exhibit One for this theory.

So why do I fear the theory? Why won't I submit to its obvious truth and get on with it? I'll feel better. Writing will come easier. In fact, even as I grouse, I'm sifting through my novel for opportunities to make my characters more positive, their flaws less drastic.

Well, I'm worried about blandness, for one thing. I'm worried that all these lovable characters are all more or less alike, our reactions to them more or less the same (even if that reaction is the commendable one of loving). Moreover the fictional worlds they inhabit will have to be similar, in order to accommodate these particular kinds of creatures--the worlds are realistic, mostly comfortable, relatively safe. Again, maybe that's what reading fiction is all about. Surely some fiction can and should be about this. But all of it? Would something be lost if Fun with Problems vanished from the shelves?

I suppose one could push the boundaries of the formula to see if more interesting results ensue. Make the character ridiculously perfect, her flaw just on the border (or on the other side) of acceptable. Find some clever ways of passing judgment without forcing them upon the reader--because readers really don't like being told how they're supposed to think about characters.


CKHB said...

Interesting thoughts. Do these people always mean "love" in the same way, though? I mean, I "loved" the character of Hannibal Lecter in that he's fascinatingly real, terrifying, hideous, charming, smart, seductive, and repulsive all at once. Do I ever want to meet someone like that? Hells no.

Characters need to call to us in some way to make us keep reading, but I don't think that identifying with a character or finding a character "likeable" necessarily means that we would LIKE the person in real life. Tricky.

And, of course, nothing is truly universal: I hate The Great Gatsby. I think every single character is boring and selfish and useless and I tried to reread it post-high school and couldn't because I don't want to spend another minute thinking and learning about people like that. I am obviously in the minority on this. What's unlikeable to one reader may be likeable to another.

Ann said...

Yes, good point about the different meanings of "loving" characters--and what it means for different readers. Perhaps what peeved me about "lovable" in the context of this review was that it sort of bordered on "endearing," which sort of bordered on "cute." But, not having read the book in question, I can't say for sure.

Hannibal Lecter is an excellent test case, so to speak. We might say we "love" him as a literary character but we can *only* say that because we know we'll never meet him in life...