Thursday, August 1, 2013

Guest Blogger: T.V. LoCicero, Author of Admission of Guilt

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.

The Bane of Unsympathetic Characters
T.V. LoCicero

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:

My latest release, Admission of Guilt (The detroit im dyin Trilogy, Book 2) can be purchased at:


Cheryl said...

I totally agree, T.V. While I enjoy sympathetic characters, I also enjoy learning how a villain's mind works. And though I have to admit to enjoying sympathetic villains--those whose troubled past has lead to their current actions--it's whether or not they seem real to me that matters. It works the same for heroes. I don't expect perfection. I want people that seem like they could be someone I know.

Mayra Calvani said...

In his book, "Writing the Breakout Novel," Donald Maass has the best description of what makes a great character. I don't remember the exact words, but basically what he says is that a great hero will have flaws, yes, but at the same time will have a noble, redeeming quality that in a way will make him 'larger than life.'He will be out of the ordinary in some way. He will have strength or grow to have it by the end of the novel. This is what makes heroes. He may seem realistic and ordinary, but he's bigger than his circumstances. Maass also says that we read fiction not just to see ourselves but to imagine what we could be.

T.V. LoCicero said...

Cheryl, thanks so much for the support and the chance to do the guest blog. Yes, for me a novel's value depends on how fully, accurately and artfully it renders the human condition, so characters that seem deep, genuine and real are crucial.

Mayra, I really appreciate your comment. Of course, Maass is an agent and, as his book title suggests, he's talking about a book's commercial value. About that he may very well be right. The other day an Amazon reviewer had this to say about the central character in my thriller The Car Bomb: "...the guy's such a sleeze that even when he tries not to be, he still is." And for that reason she gave the book 4 instead of 5 stars. Now I don't agree that "sleeze" fully defines that character, the TV newsman Frank DeFauw, but that's the great thing about the experience of reading a book: we each bring a unique personality to the process and we each are entitled to our own opinion.

By the way, Frank also plays a peripheral role in Book 2 of The detroit im dyin Trilogy, Admission of Guilt. I hope you'll give him a look in either or both books.

Diane Estrella said...

This looks like an interesting book. Thanks for your thoughts and the review.

Have a great weekend!