Do our characters need to be ‘likeable’?

Every now and then I check to see if anyone has posted a review of my books on Amazon. Not that they ¬†make any difference to sales – or do they? – but just out of curiosity. The reviews are usually good, I’m pleased to say, but one for ‘Forgiven’ was a 3 star and I checked it. Can’t recall the precise wording but the general gist was that the reader was unimpressed as he/she didn’t find any of the characters ‘sympathetic’. That’s OK: but I asked myself whether I had really tried to make my characters likeable, and what that would mean.

‘Likeability’, like beauty, is very much in the eye – or feelings – of the reader. Who and what we like depends on who are, our own life experiences and our view of the world. It is therefore unlikely that any one character would be liked by everybody who encountered them. In a novel there will be a wide range of characters to choose from, but even then it may be that none of them appeal to a particular reader, as in the case of my 3 star reviewer.

The only book I’ve read recently that presented me with such a panoply of unattractive people was Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’, which has been a runaway best-seller, despite my feeling that it relied for its tension on the reader’s detached curiosity about ‘whodunnit’ without actually caring at all, as none of the people involved were worth caring about. I couldn’t even finish it, but I assume I was in a minority. Then I began to wonder whether it matters. Do we need to like the characters for them to carry us through a novel? Can we care about them while still finding them unsympathetic?

The answer of course must be ‘Yes.’ Lear is a monster, Henchard stubborn and self-defeating, Emma vain and self-obsessed. In her own small way my heroine Jessie Whelan is a very difficult woman who creates most of her own crises. As one of my correspondents put it, ‘That Jessie – sometimes I could slap her.’ But without those flaws she could be flat and uninteresting, and her story less rich and worthy of the telling. John, her son, is portrayed as a young man damaged by the restrictions of his early life, awkward, distrustful, self-centred, although he is redeemed later by his love for Maggie and his children. On the other hand, two minor characters who appear in all three books and many of my readers enjoy are Hannah and Fred, who live at Mill Cottage in Boot. They both struggle with disability – the one-eyed woman and the one-legged man – and both rise above it with humour and unselfconscious enjoyment of their lives and each other. I loved writing about them, and mourned for Fred’s sad decline. In planning the current book I’m working hard to create rounded characters with weakness and challenges, not to make them likeable but to make them human. Even the villains can’t be all bad: they too need some redeeming features that drive their behaviour and provide a necessary ambivalence for the reader. Sympathy with the characters is not required, but a flicker of empathy helps to engage the reader, don’t you think?

Letters from readers

I’m sure more famous authors get loads of letters from readers, but for me it’s a new phenomenon: just a few, usually handwritten, in a card or on their own in an envelope. The writers tell me what they’ve enjoyed about my books. If they’re local, they say how they enjoy recognising places in West Cumbria – where the trilogy is set – and what they themselves remember about them. They talk too about the characters who live their lives in this setting. It feels like well-intentioned gossip, sharing details of what you’ve noticed with someone else. When the first book, ‘A Good Liar’ came out, I got an email, or was it a tweet, which said, ‘Oh that Jessie, I could slap her.’ I could too: Jessie has a tendency to come out with things carelessly at times, getting herself into all sorts of trouble. She’s a complicated woman, which is what I always wanted her to be, and not always likeable, although I still feel that she’s fundamentally a good person. Hence the title.

Other letters are less specific, just expressions of enjoyment and looking forward to the next book, which is due out in November 2015 by the way. I was in a local bookshop the other day and on the stand where my books are displayed was a little note, left over from the summer, which read. ‘Yes it’s here! Book 3 Fallout has arrived!’ I’m sure the queue was a little less long that those for the new Harry Potter books, but I was tickled by the idea of people I didn’t know waiting for a book to appear and wanting to get reading.

My readers sometimes tell me which of the three books they’ve enjoyed the most, and there’s no pattern to that choice, except that the quietest of the three ‘Forgiven’ seems to appeal to fewer people even though I think it’s the best of the three. What I’ve been waiting for and not had yet is something from people who personally remember the Windscale Fire of 1957, which features in ‘Fallout’, telling me that I’ve got it wrong. If I have, then no-one is telling me that, but maybe they just wouldn’t say anything at all. West Cumbrian communication can be a bit ’round-about’, and I am an ‘off-comer’ after all. If anyone’s reading this who has anything to say about any of my books, I would really love to hear from you. Feedback – it’s what keeps us going.

Generally, it’s hard for authors to get an idea of who’s reading what you’ve written, and how they feel about it. I read continually myself, and have never yet written to an author about a book, assuming that what I say about it will be immaterial and probably ignored. Now I wonder whether I should be more willing to write a note, or send a card. If you have a publisher, maybe it’s easier for readers to find you. Or maybe you just reach more readers and therefore increase the chance of communication.

Most of the feedback I receive is from the people I meet when I’m doing readings around this region, but unless I sometimes write down what is said it’s hard later to remember the specifics. When I’m struggling, as I am now, with the final versions of plot and sequences of events and a few relevant references to contemporary life, all the fiddly bits before the real enjoyment of writing starts, I have to stop and think that these details will be noticed and enjoyed, and that what I’m doing matters to someone beyond myself. I write to be read, not as a cathartic personal release. How the writing is received is interesting to me. It doesn’t determine how I write, but it’s certainly part of what encourages me to keep doing so.

My first writing workshop, Jan 17th, Kendal Library

Well, actually, it’s not quite my first. That was at the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle in September – which was a great book festival, by the way – but it was only an hour and a half, not long enough to do anything substantial. Even so, I enjoyed it so much that I really want to have another go, for a few hours this time. I picked the middle of January to connect with people who feel that writing fiction is on their New Year’s resolution list, or whatever intellectual bucket list they carry in our heads and hearts. For me it was the approach of a big birthday that made me think that life is short: instead of just thinking about writing a novel it was definitely time to get started.

So Saturday January 17th was my pick for a date, when 2015 is beckoning. What about a venue? I’m not sure how many people may be interested, so I didn’t want to commit an expensive venue with the pressure of a deadline. Cumbria library service has been very supportive to my wring and publishing, and Kendal library has a good space and helpful people, so that was the decision. Despite all the uncertainties of an untried enterprise, I’m really clear what I want to do during those few hours. Looking back on my own choices, what has mattered to me most as a writer in the past five years has been balancing character, plot and setting and do justice to all three. I’m a good teacher, so with those goals in mind I can put together a learning experience that will – hopefully – motivate, inform and encourage people who like me feel they have a story to tell and need a place to start. And then there’s the business of getting published: I have plenty of advice to offer about that, from hard personal experience. The workshop is called ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel’, and I’ll be interested to see how much time participants will want to spend on each of these two aspects. For me, logic dictates that writing something of real quality has to come first: what’s the point in self-publishing something that isn’t as good as it can be?

So, Kendal Library it is, on Saturday January 17th, from 9.45 to 3.15 with a short break for lunch. Five or so hours is not much but it’s start, and we’ll see how it goes. When it came to a decision about a fee, I had some interesting choices to juggle. To get something similar in London would cost a lot, and with travel on top, but that would be led by a recognised ‘name’ in the business. My books sell well across Cumbria, but I couldn’t call myself a ‘name’ even here, so why would anyone want to come, and how much might they be prepared to pay? In the end I opted for ¬£30, and bring your own lunch. Apart from the cost of a catered lunch you get into all sorts of paperwork about dietary needs and options, and it would be so much easier and more convenient to ask people to bring a sandwich, or a salad, or some leftovers for midday nourishment and let the real business of the day be about the writing, not the eating. Will anybody come? Some will, they’ve already signed up. The main problem will be letting people know that it’s on, and you can help if you read as far as this, if you know someone who lives within reach of Kendal and might enjoy the experience.

Which brings me to the thorny issue of marketing, the self-publishers hardest task. Some local bookshops will carry a poster but others will not. The libraries will advertise, but BBC Radio Cumbria can’t do so, except for local community events, and this workshop doesn’t qualify as that. The local papers might carry something, but if it’s too early it’ll get swallowed in the tide of Christmas stuff. So I think I need to wait until after Christmas, when people are beginning to think about the year ahead. Will it work? I don’t know. I know I can help adults learn something new, because that’s my life’s work, but the business of marketing is still a learning experience for me. I’ll have to be prepared to fail before I succeed – that’s how learning works. If you want to come, by the way, you can go to the ‘Events’ section of my website, sign up and pay online with Paypal. Or you can email me direct on ruth@ruthsutton.co.uk. Couldn’t be simpler, and it could be the first step on a road that will give you as much pleasure as it’s giving me.

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.