From the time I learned I could string sentences together and create a story, I wanted to write. I started with fairy tales with princesses and evil witches, and then moved on to barely more realistic stories peopled with righteous children and evil adults. The characters were cardboard stereotypes – mean teachers, unhappy orphans, and on and on. People were either good or bad – there was no in-between. It’s the way the world seemed to me as a child. Everything was right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair.
Of course as we grow up we realize that the world is full of ambiguity, that most people straddle the fence between good and bad at some times in their lives. Things are complicated. I want the books I read to be complicated. I want the characters to be fully realized, complicated beings. I want to feel empathy for even the most unlikable character.
As I’ve said many times, I don’t care a thing about liking the characters in a story or book. Some of the greatest characters in literature are basically unlikable people (the first that comes to mind is the protagonist in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). But there is always some humanity there, something that makes me want to stick with them long enough to find out what happens. That humanity is what makes a good character. Not good in the way I thought back when I wrote about those princesses, but good in a way that makes you say, yeah, I believe in this person.
I just finished reading Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, and while I didn’t love the book as much as many critics did, I admire the way he made even the most unlikable characters sympathetic in some way. In the author’s interview at the end of the book, Rachman addresses this. “Several (characters) are tricky types, the sorts who, had I met them in a newsroom, might have prompted me to run. But on the page, I had fondness for them. It’s the writing that did this. To form these characters, I tried to conceive of their motives, resentments, disappointments … Writing (and reading) is a sort of exercise in empathy… (it) stirs compassion that, in real life, is so often obscured by our own motives.”
I love that. “Stirs compassion that in real life is so often obscured by our own motives.” I believe that the best fiction does this, for the reader and the writer. That’s what I want in my own stories.