Lionel Shriver on the Appeal of Unappealing Characters

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Oct. 22 2011 7:43 AM

Perfectly Flawed

In defense of unlikable characters.

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Now, courting reader affection is trickier than rigging reader approval but still not that difficult. If I make a character funny, entertaining, and clued-up, you’ll probably develop a fondness for my little ward. So why deliberately conceive characters who test your affection? Why make the narrator in Kevin contemptuous of her compatriots when I know that’s not appealing? Why is the American protagonist in A Perfectly Good Family portrayed as a duplicitous sneak who puts on a pretentious English accent when I could have crafted a loyal, honest, modest sister who’s perfectly charming?

Because in real life, people are not always perfectly charming. I try to duplicate in fiction the complex, contradictory, and infuriating people I meet on the other side of my study door. When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family. I’m less concerned that you love my characters than that you recognise them. Human beings have rough edges. Authors who write exclusively about ethical, admirable, likeable characters are not writing about real people.

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Defective main characters are not my invention. In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert is a paedophile. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov thinks he’s so intelligent that conventional morality doesn’t apply to him; to prove his theory, he lands an axe in an old lady’s head. This is attractive? In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe duplicates this obnoxious elitism in his “master of the universe”, Sherman McCoy. Multiple Philip Roth and John Updike novels focus on vain, self-centred philanderers. Much like Kevin’s Eva, the couple in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road feel grander and more sophisticated than their dumpy suburban neighbours, though the reader can’t fathom why on earth they think they’re so damned special.

Yet all these characters are interesting, and readers want to be engaged even more than they want to be seduced. When purely affectionate and approving, a reader’s relationship to a character is flat. When positive feelings mix with censure and consternation, the relationship is dynamic. In fact, authorial elicitation of the reader’s frantic if impotent warning, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” is a powerful literary tool, for dismay generates energy and intensifies engagement. In Kevin, I made Eva’s husband Franklin deliberately exasperating—see-no-evil, he refuses to recognize his son’s growing malice—because this “What a dupe! Wake up, buddy!” reaction is involving and oddly enjoyable.

Ensuring the hero’s downfall, Greek tragedy’s “fatal flaw”—such as Oedipus’s quick temper—crops up well beyond the classics. In Shakespeare, Othello is doomed by jealousy, Lear by pride. Memorably “unattractive”, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is destroyed by narcissism and depravity. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a little girl’s entrancement with her budding powers of storytelling leads to eternal regret in her adulthood, while Nick Guest in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is felled by his infatuation with power and privilege. This fatal-flaw convention having grown positively stodgy, I was staggered when several critics failed to recognize the device in my sixth novel, Double Fault.

Willy Novinsky is an ambitious professional tennis player whose fierce competitiveness is an asset on the court but a disaster in her personal life; she becomes wildly rivalrous with her husband, who also plays tennis professionally. Exploring a natural peril of the two-career marriage, the novel is a cautionary tale: look what happens when competition gets out of control. Willy is not only unattractive to the reader but unattractive to herself, and it’s only her shame at wishing her own husband ill that rescues her from seeming altogether deplorable. Willy’s impetuous termination of an unintended pregnancy in order to pursue a dead-end career is meant to elicit another, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” But you can’t stop her, because this plot is inexorably hewing to a long-established form: Double Fault is a tragedy.

Yet numerous critics witlessly observed that Willy’s resentful, destructive behavior isn’t “attractive”. Well, duh. More than one female critic objected that Willy doesn’t make a very good “feminist role model.” Well, double duh.

Maybe we’re getting down to the nugget: it is possible to sympathize with characters, while still despairing of their misjudgments and even finding them irksome. Eva’s plight as the mother of a high school killer is sympathetic, whatever her shortcomings as a parent, for the scale of her punishment has been disproportionate. Willy’s career disappointment is heartbreaking, even if her rivalry with her husband is ugly and catastrophic. We can sympathize with people of whom we sometimes disapprove, and whom we may not entirely like.

Even more to the point: if Willy Novinsky isn’t jealous of her husband’s success, Double Fault would no longer be about anything, and there would be no book. Were Eva Khatchadourian a devoted mother who adored her son from birth, there would be no book—and Lynne Ramsay would never have released her excellent adaptation of the novel this week as a feature film. Were Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina both faithful wives, we would never know their names.

Good stories require mistakes. If you want to read about unimpeachable characters, order the annual report from Oxfam. If you want to read about difficult, complicated, maddening characters who remind you of people you know—who remind you, if you’re honest, of yourself—read Shakespeare. Read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Flaubert. Read Wilde, Updike, Roth, Yates, Wolfe, Woodward, McEwan, Hornby, Hollinghurst and Shriver.


This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

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