A 12-year-old girl is the desperate focus of three men: John, a dedicated young teacher; Charlie, a small-time private detective; and Steven, a major narcotics importer. Their lives collide when John makes a shocking move to save his students from the city’s drug wars, Steven’s young daughter goes missing, and Charlie—hired to find her—confronts a moral dilemma that will change all their lives.
DESPICABLE, DISGUSTING, IMPOSSIBLE TO LOVE:
The Bane of Unsympathetic Characters
There’s been lots of chatter lately about the importance of populating a novel with sympathetic characters. We’ve had advice from agents about what will entice a traditional publisher. Editors have warned about what is or is not acceptable these days if you want to sell books.
Reviewers complain and readers fulminate about how they just couldn’t get into a particular piece of fiction, because they didn’t really care about the characters who people it. They didn’t like them, thought they were too off-putting, found them to be distasteful creatures for one reason or another.
Now no one is saying that every character in a novel needs to be a positive role model, or a hero, or have some socially redeeming value. Stories, after all, still seem to benefit from villains. But the idea appears to be that unless there is at least one main character with sterling moral qualities, someone basically good, comely, admirable and in some way worthy of love, despite any little quirks or foibles, for the reader to feel attached to and to root for, there’s just no way a story is going to work, or hold the average reader’s attention.
Would-be novelists are often told to keep their readers firmly in mind, to consider carefully how their audience will think or feel about this or that. And to make it easy for writers to monitor what readers think of their concoctions, the fact is, today any reader can be a reviewer. On Amazon and many other sites, just pick the number of stars you feel like giving and jot a few words, and there you are, a published reviewer and one whose opinion can matter.
Here’s how one of my favorite book bloggers, Ms. Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room, set up the discussion a while back with a post called “The Curse of the Sympathetic Character”:
“Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgement that ‘the characters in this novel were not worthy of depiction’. Now it was true that these characters were not heroic, or instantly sympathetic in that button-pressing write-by-numbers sort of way. They were people who struggled with their situations and never managed to resolve them, they were people who made mistakes and who were flawed, they were people who either couldn’t shake off unhealthy obsessions or ran away from conventional happiness – but what’s all this about being ‘worthy’? Since when have we decided that characters in novels need to be moral paragons? And yet I do see this more and more in reviews I read, the endless cry for characters to be wholly, engagingly and consistently sympathetic.”
Now I found Ms. Litlove’s thoughts on sympathetic characters to be, as usual, shrewd, helpful and...sympathetic. But in my typically simple-minded way, I found myself wanting to reverse some terms and go at the argument from a different, perhaps more perverse angle.
First, the kinds of characters I invariably judge unsympathetic can be smart or stupid, sweet or sour, ugly or lovely, essentially good or often evil…
Well, you get the idea. What they all have in common and why I find them unsympathetic, or “not worthy of depiction” is this: they’re flat and unconvincing, without credible motivation or plausible action; they’re simple when they need to be complex; they’re dull and uninteresting because they don’t appear to be genuinely alive. In short, they’re not compelling because they don’t match up well with everything life has taught us about the myriad manifestations of the human animal.
Someone asked me recently if I had set out to write a trilogy when I began working on my first Truth Beauty novel, The Obsession. I answered no, I had continued writing the story that unfolded in that first novel into a second book, The Disappearance, simply because the characters had lodged themselves in my heart. I did not mean that I loved those characters in the sense that I was sympathetic to them and their plight. In fact, one of the central players in The Obsession is among the most despicable folks I’ve ever encountered, in life or in books.
No, what makes me love the characters I create are those magical moments when they come alive and go their own way, when they surprise, puzzle and confound me. At those special times they’re full of verve and contradiction, and they’re exciting to me because they often feel so bloody real.
Yes, I think we need to be concerned about the commercial influence of agents, editors and readers in this new, hyper-connected world of publishing.
But to me, and I expect to any serious novelist, all that matters is not how likable our characters are, but whether they truly live and breathe.
T.V. LoCicero has been writing both fiction and non-fiction across five decades. He's the author of the true crime books Murder in the Synagogue (Prentice-Hall), on the assassination of Rabbi Morris Adler, and Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. His novels include The Car Bomb and Admission of Guilt, the first two books in The detroit im dyin Trilogy, and The Obsession and The Disappearance, the first two in The Truth Beauty Trilogy. Seven of his shorter works are now available as ebooks. These are among the stories and essays he has published in various periodicals, including Commentary, Ms. and The University Review, and in the hard-cover collections Best Magazine Articles, The Norton Reader and The Third Coast.
For more info: http://www.tvlocicero.com/
My latest release, Admission of Guilt (The detroit im dyin Trilogy, Book 2) can be purchased at: