Unlikeable Characters in Fiction

I workshopped my (unpublished) novel many times, in many settings, and one comment I heard not infrequently concerned how “unlikeable” my protagonist was. I suppose I became something of a defender of unlikeable characters for awhile, but in all honesty, I haven’t given them a whole lot of thought in recent times.

That changed this weekend, when I read the latest issue of One Story, Joe Meno’s “Children are the Only Ones who Blush.” And it didn’t take me very long to decide that I really disliked the protagonist’s sister, “Jane.”

For one thing, Jane is a bully. For example, she just won’t be satisfied until she manages to get her (quite likely straight) brother to declare his homosexuality.

Jane’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic tendencies also had a lot to do with my reaction to her.

“That sounds fucking stupid,” Jane cursed. “That’s exactly what the world needs. More childish, performance-art bullshit. Why don’t you do something meaningful? Like confront what’s happening in the Middle East?”

Which wouldn’t raise my antennae, had it not been followed so quickly by:

“Like I bet that girl never even heard of the Situationists. I bet she has no idea what’s going on in Palestine right now.”

And here’s a gem of dialogue between Jane and her brother. Jane is the first speaker:

“I guess we should just stop worrying about your severe emotional issues because, all of a sudden, you like some Jewish girl.”
“What? She’s not Jewish.”
“She’s definitely Jewish.”
“So what? Mom’s Jewish,” I said.
“You are so completely clueless. Why don’t you screw this girl and get it over with? And maybe then you’ll be ready to admit what your problem really is.”
“I don’t want to screw anyone.”
“Bullshit. You want to screw her in her little Jew butt.”

Charming, isn’t she, that Jane?

What perhaps troubles me the most is that I suspect some readers won’t merely find Jane’s statements unobjectionable. They’ll like her all the more for expressing them!

On the other hand, I have to tip my hat to any writer who inspires passionate feelings in readers. The intensity of my negative response to Jane is, in fact, a tribute to Meno’s skills. I’d like to think that my unlikeable novel protagonist, and another character who might well fall under the unlikeable label (I’ve been thinking him a lot this weekend because of a tie to Walter Cronkite in his story), reflect just a fraction of the same ability.

Free Freelancing E-Course from Linda Formichelli

Want to learn about freelancing from a successful veteran? Linda Formichelli (half of the “Renegade Writer” team) is offering one lucky student free registration in her online “Write for Magazines” premium e-course. Linda is making you work just a bit to enter the contest, but don’t worry–there’s no fee involved. Just follow her instructions by July 20 and you’ll be eligible to win. (P.S. If any of our own blog readers should win this prize, I’d be up for a guest post about your experience with the class! Good luck!)

The Wednesday Web Browser: Notable New Sites/Blogs Edition

I received an e-mail a few days ago alerting me to the news that Tin House Books has redesigned its site and launched a blog. (This might be a good time to revisit my comments about some particularly good reads from Tin House books.)
Here at Practicing Writing, we take Mark Sarvas’s blog posts very seriously, so when he recently recommended two new online destinations, we listened.
As you may have heard, the National Book Foundation is celebrating the 60th year of the National Book Awards by offering a “book-a-day blog on the Fiction winners from 1950 to 2008.” They’ve only just started, so it’s definitely not too late to check in.
Finally, the folks at Writer’s Digest have also just launched a blog, Promptly, promising “a writing prompt-driven community” that will be “shelling out prompts to get your pen moving and keep it that way.” I’ll be following its progress.

Roxana Robinson’s Writing Room

One of the things I’ve most missed about my Cambridge apartment (which I left when I moved to New York in early 2007) is the perfect home office I’d managed to create there. Now that I am on my way to securing a dedicated writing space in a new Manhattan abode, I have been thinking about how wonderful it will be to have all my books, binders, and papers within reach again. And a big desk. For starters.

So I was certainly intrigued to see the New York Times run an article this past weekend that focused on author Roxana Robinson’s home writing “hideout.” I was particularly interested in Robinson’s choice to work in a room the article describes as “as spare as a monk’s cell,” rather than in “a study that would seem the ideal lair for a novelist.”

Most of all, I was just happy to see the subject of a writer’s working space treated so front-and-center in the newspaper’s real estate section!