Books Magazine

Unsympathetic Characters

By 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 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 recently:

“Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgment 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.”

The full post with comments is here.

Now I found Ms. Litlove’s thoughts on sympathetic characters to be, as usual, shrewd, helpful and…sympathetic. And her visitors and commenters, a marvelous collection of thoughtful folks who regularly stop by her site, also had a number of interesting things to say on the subject.

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 of all, 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” (yes, I think I’ve found a use for that strange phrase!) 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.

A while back I mentioned somewhere that I continued writing the story in my novel The Obsession into a second book (The Disappearance) 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.

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 damn 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 likeable our characters are, but whether they truly live and breathe.


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