Thursday, June 3, 2010

Characters aren't your friends

I really irks me when people critique a book or a movie on the basis of "unlikeable characters" or characters who take morally questionable or reprehensible actions, which is like saying you didn't like The Poseidon Adventure because the ship wasn't seaworthy. When you read a book you're not supposed to evaluate the characters as people, like you're deciding whether or not to hire them or be friends with them. Characters aren't your friends and they don't have to be role models.

Relatedly, there's a difference between a sexist (or racist or elitist, etc.) book and a book with sexist characters. Matt Cozart mentioned semi-recently that someone he knows thinks House, M.D. (the show) is sexist. I assume this is because House, the character, is sexist. But that just doesn't follow. Sexist characters may indicate a sexist book, but a better indication is how women are represented: Are female characters flat/stupid/stereotypical? Are there women in the world of the story at all?

Also relatedly, art doesn't have to be "beautiful."

Besides, I like unlikeable characters (see House, Humbert Humbert, etc.). Someone should do up a list of likeable unlikeable characters in art and literature.

21 comments:

  1. "like saying you didn't like The Poseidon Adventure because the ship wasn't seaworthy"--lol

    (p.s. it wasn't someone i know, it was someone on the internet)

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  2. What about Berryman's Henry? I definitely wouldn't want to put up with him in real life, but what would THE DREAM SONGS be like if he didn't have "plights & gripes / as bad as achilles"?

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  3. Dang internet.

    Oh holy cow Henry! He'd have to be on the list. And Harry Angstrom of the Rabbit novels. And Scarlett O'Hara.

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  4. Archie Bunker has to be near the top of the list.

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  5. And I really liked Hannibal Lecter as a fictional character. He was portrayed as strangely elegant and almost sympathetic, even though he wasn't a vegetarian.

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  6. the only time i find it hard to keep reading is when the bad character is the narrator, and thus inescapable. obviously i would never say it's a bad book because of that, but i would just say, hey, i'm tired of sitting next to the muttering misanthrope on the subway, i think i'll change seats now, no offense to the muttering misanthrope. (it's why i gave up on lolita after 30 pages.)

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  7. Hm, for me it's more about whether I can get with the narrator's voice. Pedophile, maybe, but HH's voice is so beautiful.

    I didn't really like Veronica (by Mary Gaitskill), however, because the narrator is really flaky and rambly and it just seemed like an excuse for sloppy writing.

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  8. Exactly! Besides, 'unlikable' characters are the best, because they seem the most realistic. They are flawed, and so they are human.

    I'm also one of those people who can't help but fall in love with unlikable characters. I can't condone Humbert's actions, but I sympathize with his inability to combat his addiction, and I can even desire to be loved in some semblance of the way he loves his lolita.

    Same with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart: he's a brute, but the story is more meaningful because he is a brute.


    I've had so many people who don't like Humbert, and so he don't feel sympathy for him. I can not like what he does and still

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  9. But just having an unlikable narrator (or character) doesn't automatically make it a better book - I'm thinking that unlikable narrators often make me annoyed - like in The Corrections, or the myriad "male writer memoirs about it being so hard to hold down a job/find a girl/get a life" where they get very whiny. I think it's just like in real life - how long can you get along with a person, or a character, that whines all the time?
    On the other hand, Atwood is the queen of the unlikable narrator, and I can never put down her books. So I guess it all goes back to the writing.

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  10. A major character who is just whiny can be hard to stomach, yeah. I think annoying characters can have great comic value though!

    Ultimately traits like self-serving/manipulative (in the case of Scarlett O'Hara) are surely more interesting than "whiny."

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  11. Similarly, I've always had a problem with the concept of the unreliable narrator. In some poetry workshop, people said my poem had an unreliable narrator, that the speaker was crazy, they didn't trust her.

    I was like, the speaker is me! I guess I'm unreliable and crazy, then. The idea of anxiety/depression completely compromising the speaker's reliability/likeability (aren't many of us a little nuts) is kinda insulting, I think.

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  12. I love unreliable narrators too! I've often wondered who the first unreliable narrator in literature was. has anyone looked into that?

    What's up with these workshop mofos, can't they go meta?? Why can't texts comment on the characters therein implicitly?

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  13. Well, my particular mofos were quite old and really liked nature, so I think they were just overwhelmed.

    I like the Underground Man from Notes deserves some unreliable narrator pioneering credit. At least he's my fave.
    Canterbury Tales, maybe?

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  14. "which is like saying you didn't like The Poseidon Adventure because the ship wasn't seaworthy. "

    Amazing.

    I didn't think I agreed with you until I read that. Though I do wonder... having a main character you absolutely love is one excellent reason to READ a book, so shouldn't a character who is unlikable make a book equally unreadable?

    I've often wondered at what it is about both Notes from the Underground and Native Son which I love so much when the main characters are both are so detestable. Maybe I like they manner with which their ships sink.

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  15. Some of the most unlikeable characters and narrators ever created can be found in Jim Thompson's novels, especially The Killer Inside me and Pop 1280. Genuine, horrific murderous creeps as narrators, and fantastic books.

    I absolutely agree that likeability and unlikeability should not be the issue. When it comes to realism at least though, my main judgment on characters comes from Leo Tolstoy: "It is a terrible thing in a novel when a character does something that the same person would not do in real life."

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  16. unlikeable people are more honest. and funny. how about the guy who reads the paper in sense+sensibility, can't remember his name. or the weirdo brother in brideshead revisited (emma thompson version). period piece movie weirdos are the absolute best!

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  17. Yeah, that guy with the paper is the best. In my memory whoever played him kind of looked like Hugh Laurie actually.

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  18. i just found out emmaT wrote the screenplay for S&S. what a babe. plus she used to date hughL.

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  19. I knew that (about the screenplay). I'm pretty sure she won an Oscar for it.

    Holy Shit, Hugh Laurie DID play the dick in S&S! That's so awesome, he's just Hollywood's go-to asshole. I love him even more.

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  20. that's so classic man shit! there must be others

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