Monday, October 24, 2011

In defense of unlikable characters. - Perfectly Flawed

Still of Ezra Miller as ‘Kevin’ from We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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Posted Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011, Slate

Still photo courtesy of BBC Films © 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Like most writers, I’ve received my share of rejection letters. The most common criticism lobbed at my earlier manuscripts was that my main characters were “unattractive.” Ironically, though the accusation was meant to consign my novels to the bin, in latter career I am now perhaps most celebrated for crafting characters who are, to a degree, unattractive. But what does this mean?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. We’re not talking about villains, whom readers are invited to revile with relish—who are deliciously unattractive on purpose. Neither are we talking about the anti-hero: a protagonist the author has clearly portrayed as malign but for whom, curiously, we root anyway. An endearing mobster, Tony Soprano is an archetypal anti-hero. Ditto Calvin Piper in my fourth novel Game Control—a renegade demographer whose modest proposal to solve human overpopulation by killing two billion people overnight makes the man and his festive misanthropy no less beguiling. Anti-heroes aren’t actually unattractive—literarily, they function exactly like heroes—but morally they shouldn’t be attractive. We feel a little guilty about cheering them on, which is part of the pleasure, that daring little dance on the dark side.
Thirdly, we’re also not talking about characters who are unattractive by accident—whom the author intends to be loveable but who drive you insane. For example, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, the buffoon in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces , got powerfully on my nerves. Sometimes you simply cannot bear the company of an author’s characters, who inspire the same claustrophobic desperation to flee as overbearing dinner guests, and in that case you should read a different book.
So instead we’re talking flawed main characters, neither villains nor anti-heroes, whom the author has deliberately, even perversely contrived as hard to like. Most famously in my own work, Eva Khatchadourian, the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin, is hard to like: a woman whose world travels make her feel superior to her American compatriots, who experiences pregnancy as an infestation and, worst of all, who fails to love her own son.
Yet this “liking” business has two components: moral approval and affection. Eva’s snootiness is off-putting on a personal level; her loveless motherhood is also off-putting on a moral one. Like the phenomenon of the anti-hero, Gerard Woodward’s marvelous novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon illustrates how approval and affection can be at odds. A whole family of self-destructive drunks, the Joneses are morally horrendous but personally captivating.
Read full piece at SLATE.

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