Friday, September 10, 2010
Standing up for unlikeable characters
Lately I've heard people trash certain novels and short stories because the central characters are "not likeable'' -- characters who do or think the wrong things, and don't pass the personality test. The characters are too ornery, too brazen, too selfish, too full of themselves. The charge has been levied at Jonathan Franzen, among others. Personally, I'm fine with challenging, off-putting, confounding or "difficult'' characters. If the story and the characters are compelling, and if the character is striving for something (even if it is something unsavory), I don't care if the central character is someone I wouldn't invite to my house for dinner.
I think it's a strange reason to dismiss a book out of hand. A couple of weeks ago, Vendela Vida addressed this question when she passed through town to promote her new book, The Lovers, which features a challenging central character, a widow returning to the place of her honeymoon 25 years later.
Vida told the audience that stories are a good way to learn about people you wouldn't necessarily spend time with in your day-to-day life, a chance to dwell in their world for a while.
She added that she isn't "looking for friends'' when she opens up a book.
(Speaking of Vida, she and many others can be heard in conversation online with Rick Kleffel, a books interviewer who asks good questions. )