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?