Lately I’ve been reading books with unsympathetic characters. This is not a new habit, but since finishing the draft of a novel whose characters are imperfect but, I hope, likeable on the whole, I’ve been thinking more about what makes a character likeable, and what the difference is between likeable and admirable. Fiction (to say nothing of history) is full of protagonists we might not like but can still respect and admire. Heroes whose achievements we celebrate but whom, given the chance to sit down and have a beer with, we’d just as soon avoid.
I’m not thinking either of the truly reprehensible—antiheroes like the talented Mr. Ripley. Though I must say that Patricia Highsmith’s ability to make a reader care about a serial murderer deserves admiration in itself. Nor am I thinking of heroes in the classical mode, starting with Odysseus, the trickster and tyrannical warlord whose devotion to family, countrymen and home excuses the fact that he is practically a compulsive liar.
Rather, I have in mind people like Richard Russo’s male protagonists, modeled on the author’s ill-starred father: nettlesome, stubborn, prejudiced, argumentative and reliably bad at making decisions. Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, also nettlesome—women find him more or less impossible to live with—annoyingly cynical, occasionally whiny in a distinctly masculine way. Both Russo’s and Ford’s men are still at least partly admirable. They hold values–loyalty, integrity, compassion–that make them good people, if still extremely annoying ones
These irritating heroes don’t have to be men. Increasingly, I’m seeing female protagonists who violate the norms of heroines in the classical, male, mold. They are neither particularly strong or adventurous, don’t discover or exploit their own agency, and don’t set out to accomplish anything transcendent. Many of Anne Tyler’s women fit this description (though certainly not all), but most of them are at least likeable. One exception is the female protagonist of The Amateur Marriage, Pauline, who, although vivacious and romantic, isn’t someone anyone would choose to be married to. Pauline essentially turns her life, and arguably the lives of her husband and children, into a labyrinthine ruin that none of them can escape. On the whole, though, Tyler’s women also hold values–caring, endurance, perseverance, flexibility–that make them admirable. Even Pauline at least has children who love her.
But the most curious examples of disagreeable women I’ve lately run across are the protagonists of All This Could Be Yours, by Jamie Attenberg. Barbra and Alex are the wife and daughter, respectively, of an abusive, tyrannical and secretive mafioso, Victor, who now lies dying. The two women tangle over Victor’s legacy, both literally and figuratively, to neither one’s advantage. Barbra is vain, shallow, unprincipled and completely subordinate to her husband’s whims—and adrift now that he is incapacitated. Alex is angry, aggressive and resentful and won’t leave her mother alone, insisting on knowing all about her father’s hidden transgressions. Yet the desire to understand what made these two women tick, and how Victor’s monstrous legacy would indeed play out, kept me going. Attenberg is a master of psychological tension and family dysfunction, and it seems to take a group of unlikeable characters to create it.
Personally, I don’t have the stomach to create such characters myself. Or, more accurately, I haven’t been subject enough to meanness and cruelty to live comfortably with mean and cruel characters, much less to turn them into something fruitful. I would feel too sorry for them.
What I have in my novel is something much gentler, but perhaps proportionately less interesting? It’s more a classic tale of kind and generous people (mostly women), resisting the pressures of the classic external evil—the meanness, greed and cruelty of organized crime. Their worst flaw is in failing to see just how thoroughly evil those forces, and the men generating them, are, until other women around them eventually force them to see the light.
What would you rather read—this is a sincere question—unlikeable protagonists who keep you on your toes or likeable ones who you can be pretty sure will come out unharmed?