To those who have found Nora hard to like, Messud points out that she would seem extremely likable if you met her, “and that’s the point. It costs her a great deal to be a likable character … underneath that she feels she has had to hide, up to this point, her real thoughts, her real dreams, her real desires, because they would be in some way unseemly or perhaps offputting to people.” – Claire Messud interviewed by Alex Clark in The Guardian
Two weeks ago I would have told you that characters are critical to me enjoying a book, a story, a creative non fiction piece. And by good characters I would have meant likeable characters. I would have told you, I’m not going to get attached, I’m not going to get into their stories, I’m not going to keep reading if the characters are jerks. If I don’t like them, why would I care what happens to them?
Like my friend, for whom setting is critical – she wants to spend time in a place she wants to be – I read to spend time with people I want to hang out with. Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call (Lonesome Dove) are probably my best friends in literature, and despite the fact that the story always ends the same way, no matter how many times I read it and hope that it won’t, I read and reread Lonesome Dove because I like to be with Gus and Call. With Gone With the Wind, I read it over and over again because even though Scarlett O’Hara drives me bananas, I’ll spend all day and night with Rhett Butler, thank you very much.
But after three recent books I read, I’m reconsidering my position on characters. Until I read them, I would have argued that even if there are ugly or annoying characters in a book, their detestablity provides delicious tension when balanced against the protagonist (think Disney movies) – will my guy triumph? Will the nasty character amend his ways? But now, I’m not so sure.
The first of the game changers was The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Messud’s novel sent the literary world into a tizzy because the main character is, according to everyone else, unlikable. I’ll concede that she’s not sweet-natured, but unlikable? That’s a stretch for me. Either way, I’m not sure why this has caused such a fuss because personally, a) I found Nora to be quite relatable, and if not someone I’d want to be best friends with, I at least understood her, and b) she was WAY more likeable than either of the – protagonists? – in Gillian Flynn’s insanely popular Gone Girl. (Perhaps it is because Nora is an unlikable woman?) I question the term protagonist for Flynn’s characters because protagonist suggests the one you’re rooting for, and honestly, even though Amy and Nick are the lead characters, one of whom should technically be considered the protagonist, I wasn’t rooting for either of them. They are anti-heroes, antagonists, and they both made me snarl (and also laugh) as only a well-crafted villain can. Was there such a fuss about their unlikability as there was with Messud’s character Nora? I don’t know.
The third book that kept me turning pages, even though the characters repulsed me, was The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Within the first five or ten pages, I didn’t trust or like the narrator nor his best friend, Norton, around whom the story revolves. The more I read, the more disgusted I was by both of them – their arrogance, their superiority – and yet I kept turning pages, all the way to the end, when I was so revolted that I took the book back to the library within minutes of finishing it. I wanted it out of my house.
I’m not generally a rubber-necker. I don’t enjoy train wrecks, neither the literal nor the figurative kind, and I don’t gape at gore – I turn away before I see it. And yet… With all three of these books, contrary to what I would have told you two weeks ago, I devoured them despite the unlikability, despite the train wreck stories, of the characters. I wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with or get close to any of these people, yet I did still care what happened to them. In fact, of all the books I’ve read this year, these were the three that I devoured, that I put writing and chores and sleep aside for. Why? I can’t figure it out. Perhaps it is because of these characters’ realness. These authors took human traits that all of us are prone to – anger (The Woman Upstairs), self aggrandizement (Gone Girl), entitlement (The People in the Trees) – and rather than push them down, they brought them to the surface. These authors showed us what goes on inside an unsympathetic character’s mind, granting us understanding (Gone Girl, The People in the Trees) and sometimes even compassion (The Woman Upstairs). They also showed what happens to a person when these traits become dominant, the types of sorry lives they lead when they don’t keep their meanness in check. They showed what could happen to us if we hide too deep and too long, or at the other end of the spectrum, if we think only of ourselves and let loose all our faults.
Maybe I was wrong, then, about needing characters to be my best friend if I am to enjoy a book. My gorging on these novels is testament to that. None of them even had good guys to balance the antagonistic “protagonists” against, and yet I ate them up. I do know, though, that in order for me to want to read it again, for me to willingly spend time in a story over and over, I’m going to need to love a novel’s players. I’ll hang out with ugly people once and listen to their tales, but if I’ve checked them out from the library, I can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be going right back, without me scooping up a copy for my own shelves. Because for me to want to buy a character’s story and keep it in our home, in our company, the characters not only have to be likable, they have to be my friends.
What about you? How do characters affect your enjoyment of a book, or your likelihood of re-reading it?
I highly recommend The Woman Upstairs. The work is exquisitely crafted, and as I said, Nora wasn’t particularly unlikable to me. Her intelligence and articulation might merit a re-read, even if I don’t want us to be besties. For my immediate reactions to the three books mentioned, here are my reviews on Goodreads, written as soon as I finished reading: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (curiously, the book I liked least was also the most thought-provoking).
Originally published September 16, 2013.