I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.

Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.

On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.

This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.

*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.

My Favourite Books of 2010

Lots of bloggers are listing their best and worst books of the year, and I’d like to join in. I do have a few problems, though. Firstly, I don’t keep a record of what I’ve read or when I’ve read it, so I’m not entirely certain whether some of these books were read this year, or at the end of last year. Secondly, I’m not going to name any books that I’ve disliked. It is true that I’ve been disappointed by a few books I’ve read recently. In each case, I’d been expecting something great, either because I’d liked previous books by that author, or because there’d been a lot of hype about the book. However, it isn’t the authors’ fault that my expectations didn’t match their books, so I don’t think I ought to criticise them for it. Thirdly, this year has been a bit unusual for me, with respect to my reading. I spent the first few months working my way through two enormous boxes of Australian YA fiction (and some non-fiction), because I was helping to judge a literary award. Then, for the rest of the year, I was immersed in non-fiction about World War Two (with some British 1930s and wartime novels for light relief). Here, then, is a list of the books I remember enjoying (or being intrigued by) this year.

Australian YA Fiction

When The Hipchicks Went To WarI loved Pamela Rushby’s When the Hipchicks Went To War, which won this year’s Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a moving account of a teenage girl who goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops, told in a fresh, funny and very Australian voice. I enjoyed all the books on the shortlist for this prize (which is not very surprising, because I helped select the shortlist). I also liked Blue Noise by Debra Oswald. It’s an engaging story about some high schoolers who start a band, with an ending that was hopeful without being too neat or saccharine (also, hooray for an Australian book that is not set in a country town, and a story that does not rely on a teenage girl getting murdered or killing herself). I was also fond of Keepinitreal by Don Henderson (imagine the film The Castle, but with greyhound racing) and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar (an old-fashioned mystery about an intriguing house and its former owner, featuring some beautiful writing).

Other Fiction

I must have read lots of other novels this year, but only two (well, three) remain in my thoughts. The Believers by Zoë Heller has had mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. I admit that the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I did find the conclusion to Rosa’s story irritating and implausible. However, I was intrigued enough by this very dysfunctional New York family that I re-read the book, and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

The Night WatchThe other novel that stuck in my mind was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Really, this book deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say it’s the story of four people living in London during the Blitz, linked in ways that only become apparent at the end of the book, due to the very clever structure of the narrative. This was the first Sarah Waters book I’d read, and I was so impressed by her writing that I raced out and bought The Little Stranger. Which I did not like nearly as much (see what I mean about high expectations), even though it’s a very well-plotted ghost story with a fascinating setting (a crumbling country house in post-war England).

World War Two Non-Fiction

I read a LOT of books about wartime Europe this year, but it was for research purposes – I was interested in facts, not the literary qualities of the books. However, a few of them stood out because they were not only useful, but interesting and well-written enough to appeal to (some) general readers. Firstly, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary was a fascinating, heart-breaking (and occasionally infuriating) memoir of a young RAF pilot who was shot down and badly injured during the Battle of Britain. The Last EnemyThe book gives an unsentimental account of his medical rehabilitation (his hands and face were surgically reconstructed by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe) and it describes Hillary’s evolving views on the war. The story is made more poignant by the fact that Hillary somehow managed to talk his way back into the air force (despite having only limited movement in his hands) and then crashed his plane during re-training, dying at the age of twenty-three. For a more general overview of Britain’s fighter pilots during WWII, I recommend Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys, which paints a vivid portrait of the individual (and very young) men who helped prevent Britain’s invasion in 1940. I also liked The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner, about the underground resistance in Belgium and France rescuing Allied airmen who’d been shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.

The best book I read about the experiences of civilians was Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. Somehow, she managed to describe every aspect of wartime life, from rationing to the Blitz to the ‘invasion’ of Britain by American servicemen, in a way that was clear, coherent and accessible. However, at eight hundred pages, this book is probably only for those with a deep interest in the subject. For others, I recommend Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs, an intriguing collection of photos, cartoons, advertisements and newspaper articles from the war years, with just enough comment to provide context.

Other Non-Fiction

The God DelusionI think I only read two non-fiction books this year that weren’t about WWII, but they were both amazing. First was Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough. It reads like a thriller, but also explains the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the end of the book, I had a much better understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and felt thoroughly pessimistic about peace ever being achieved in that part of the world. Secondly, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was, as I’d expected, a clear, rational argument for atheism. What I didn’t expect was that this book would be so entertaining, inspiring and plain laugh-out-loud funny. Admittedly, I’m an atheist, but I really feel this is an important book for everyone to read, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Phew! I seem to have read a lot of Very Serious Books this year, but this really wasn’t a typical reading year for me. I’m also sure I’ve left out some wonderful books that I’ve simply forgotten (due to my brain being over-stuffed with Very Serious Thoughts). What I have decided is that, from the first of January, I’m going to write down the title of each book I read, with a very short comment. I already have some book titles for my 2011 pile, including:

India Dark by Kirsty Murray
Monster Blood Tattoo Book Three: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Anonymity Jones by James Roy
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

and possibly, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, depending on how brave I’m feeling.

Hope you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2011 brings you lots of smart, enthralling and inspiring books!