Friday, July 27, 2012

Despicable Main Characters

by Scott Rhoades

I mentioned at the beginning of the year that one of my reading goals for 2012 is to read at least ten books from the ALA's lists of frequently banned books. As a result, I've read some amazing books that I might have otherwise continued to avoid. Many of these tell the story of a character who is, to say the least, unlikeable.

For example, yesterday I finished Rabbit, Run by John Updike. The writing in this book is incredible, which helped me stick with the story of a 26-year-old man who is selfish and conceited, and whose decisions ruin the lives of those closest to him. Updike's mastery made me care what happened to Rabbit, although I never liked him. In fact, few of the characters in the story are sympathetic, but Updike managed to make me sympathize with them anyway. It's a good book to read if you want to learn how to write about unsympathetic characters, although be warned that it's not hard to figure out why this book is often challenged in high schools. One of Updike's impressive skills is dealing with the sexuality that runs throughout the book without resorting to the usual sexual cliches. Another was that he kept me anxious the entire time I read, wondering whether Rabbit would see the error of his ways and be redeemed in the end, or whether his downward spiral would go out of control and cause even more damage.

A couple books back, I reread Madame Bovary. I read it in my college years, at a time when between my English Major and my German Major, I often had to read four books a week. I remember liking the book, but other than the main plot points, reading it quickly meant that very little stuck with me. This book is about the wife of a boring, somewhat slow-witted country doctor, and her attempts to live the life of the characters she read about in romance novels. That meant, of course, getting involved with other men. Being about 150 years old, sex is handled differently in this book than it is in more modern books, but it still got its author arrested. This is another book full of characters that are hard to like, but it's told so well, that you care about them even if you don't like them.

One of the first books I read this year was Lolita, which is, of course, about a self-absorbed man who believes himself to be smarter than the rest of the world, who gets married after developing a crush on the woman's 12-year-old daughter. The woman finds out about his obsession and gets herself run over by a car, and our dear, sick, lead character then takes the girl on a cross-country journey to try to avoid raising suspicions about his relationship with her. One of the brilliant things about this one is how unreliable our first-person narrator is as he convinces himself that little Delores feels the same way about him as he does about her. Humbert Humbert is despicable. His actions are disgusting (and, thankfully, mostly undescribed in the book, although you know what's going on). You want him to get caught and to suffer horribly. And you're fascinated by his story. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time, definitely worthy of the classic status it has been given. But it's also (like so many classic artworks) difficult and challenging. It's not a light, fun read. But it is enjoyable, and it contains many lessons that writers won't find drawn better anywhere else.

Other books jump to mind that I've enjoyed even though the lead characters are not sympathetic, such as The Confederacy of Dunces and Shakespeare's Coriolanus.  These books all show that your lead character need not be a shining hero. He can be flawed. Deeply flawed. He can be a villain. But to pull off a character like this, a writer has to build sympathy (or at least interest) in the character, and make us care about what happens at the end of the story. Sometimes the evil character is redeemed. Sometimes, the story is all about a bad person getting what he or she deserves. Sometimes the story is meant to show that, while people set moral boundaries for the sake of society, the world itself often seems amoral and bad people don't always lose.

What about you? Can you think of other books where you despise the protagonist, but love the book anyway?

1 comment:

Julie Daines said...

When we talked about this the other night, I mentioned The Great Gatsby. I think every character in that story is despicable, but the book itself is a wonderful read. Also, Gone with the Wind comes to mind.