Monday, 17 February 2014

Should your characters be sympathetic?

Take a group of writers, throw in the question "Should characters be sympathetic?", and sit back to enjoy the argument. (You can usually guarantee the argument by including at least one literary author and at least one commissioning editor.)

In the Characters session on the Story Elements course, we create characters with a bunch of prompts and then check the emerging characters against three criteria. Is the character complex? Real people are contradictory, have mixed feelings, think one thing and do another, behave out-of-character, and have different sides to them. While we're inventing characters, we don't want to make them too smoothed-over and consistent, or they'll end up one-dimensional. Is the character interesting? Most engaging characters have something unusual, interesting, or larger than life about them. Even the most humdrum person is unique and distinctive to themselves. The most contentious question, though, is this: is the character sympathetic? That question comes with a massive caveat.

Whether characters should be sympathetic has always been a matter for argument. Jane Austen wrote about Emma, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," and expected that the book's popularity would suffer as a result. Women writers and characters seem to get more flak, for not being likeable: Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, was told by her interviewer, "I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?" and Messud rightly flipped:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’
Somewhere along the line, sympathetic and likeable have become confused and we need to separate them out again.  Sympathetic means someone you can sympathise with, not the French sympathique (which does mean likeable). In the seed packet, I offer this gloss: "Can we sympathise with your character? What would make us like them more or understand them more? They don’t have to be 'nice', but we want to be able to get behind their eyes." That distinction - like them more or understand them more - is important. One student offered the alternative she uses: Can I respect this character? That question works for the strengths and weaknesses of the character she's currently creating, but wouldn't apply to every character. Even returning to the original meaning of a "sympathetic" character doesn't mean every main character should be sympathetic.

The value of sympathising with a character, of being able to look through their eyes, means that we care about their aims and wishes, even if we think they're wrong. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is certainly monstrous, but we have moments where we can see through his eyes, care about what he wants: "I've been in this room eight years, Clarice. I know that they will never, ever let me out while I'm alive. What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree, or even water." Lecter hasn't become likeable, but in that moment, we can feel alongside him that intensity, that desperate and so small request. Lecter isn't the main character, though: for most of the book, we're in the company of Clarice.

A story's personal stakes depend on how much we can sympathise with the character, in this sense. Certain genres rely especially heavily on personal stakes: literary fiction (we'll argue about whether that's a genre another time) and romantic fiction especially. The character's desires and aims are what drive these stories; the degree to which we care about their desires and aims is the degree to which we sympathise with them.

In AS Byatt's tetralogy (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman), Frederica is dissatisfied and frequently annoying - often to those around her and sometimes to the reader as well. She's not especially likeable and the narrative doesn't rely on us liking her. At times, though, it does rely on our sympathising with her, being able to care about her desires and aims as strongly as she does, especiall in Babel Tower: in her silent, hemmed-in struggle to retain her selfhood when she's living with her baby surrounded by her husband's staff; in her fight for custody; in her frustrating and uncompromising refusal to foist all the blame onto him. We couldn't care what happens in those parts of the plot if we didn't care about Frederica's desires and aims in them.

Similarly, In Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, Stevens is not "likeable" in the banal sense. You would not want him to "be your friend". He is pompous and verbose from the start (hilariously so). As the novel progresses, he appears increasingly complicit in wrongdoing and morally weak. His inability to show feeling or compassion in even the most severe circumstances is shocking. Yet somehow, it breaks our hearts. We care enough that his father's downfall and his own inability to mourn make us grieve. We yearn for him to let his guard down and find happiness with Miss Kenton, even as we realise he never will. Our grief for him stems from the pathos and poignance of his character, but we do care.

Can you write a novel with a wholly unsympathetic character, with whom the reader feels no shred of fellow feeling?  Ian McEwan did, with Solar. Michael Beard is revolting, selfish, and entirely unlikeable from start to finish. Nothing he does inspires our sympathy or any desire for him to "win". Although we hear the story from his point of view, we never share his point of view. His aims never become our hopes for the narrative. Personally, I found it a difficult and unpleasant read - and I think that's fine. The main character is a difficult, unpleasant person to spend time with. That doesn't make it a bad novel.

Should your characters be sympathetic? I don't believe that there is an answer; it's not binary. I don't believe in rules, in writing: I believe in principles. I compare it to artists learning about art. Artists don't have to work out the principles of perspective from scratch for themselves; they're allowed to learn them. But you can learn how perspective works and then be Picasso. You don't have to obey principles, only understand how they work. Having a "sympathetic character" is a principle, not a rule: we find out what the principle is, we learn the effects on a story of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and then we decide what we want to do, understanding what the effects will be.

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