A Real Tear-Jerker

Yesterday I came to the end of the first draft of a novel. And I cried.

You might think I was crying just because I was overcome by the realization that I’d managed to get to the end. After all, this is something I’ve been working on, in one form or another, for the last five years or so (albeit with time off to write another novel in the middle). You might think that, after all the permutations and false starts I’ve been through with this project, they were tears of joy.

But you would be wrong. In fact, I was blubbering like a baby over what I was actually writing—the final scene between my two main characters, who have been sworn enemies throughout the course of the book and are at last discovering that in fact they have some things in common, over which they can bond.

Stated baldly like that, it doesn’t sound like anything that would inspire tears, let alone enough tears to require two tissues (and a trip in search of a whole new tissue box, since I’d been down to the last tissue in the box on my desk). In fact, stated like that, I realize that that’s basically what’s happened at the end of the two other novels I’ve written. And I cried while I was writing those endings too.

But I didn’t expect to cry while writing this one. All along, I’ve been plagued by doubts about this story—or perhaps I should say more doubts than usual—wondering if I’ve been on the right track, questioning whether I shouldn’t just throw in the towel and move on to something else, possibly something that doesn’t involve writing novels. Let’s just say there have been moments of discouragement.

And much of that discouragement has arisen from my doubts about the two main characters: Were they believable? Were they too stereotypical? Were they two-dimensional? Were they just ridiculous? There were times when it seemed that no matter what I did I couldn’t get them to take wing, that I was lugging them around the story like a couple of sacks of potatoes.

But something happened when I was writing the last chapter. Maybe it was just the knowledge that I was on the home stretch, but I couldn’t make myself stop writing, with the result that I finally ended up eating lunch at about 3:30. And the writing did take off, the characters did come alive, so alive that I felt I was right there with them, in a book-filled room in a house at the corner of Hanover and German Streets in Baltimore on a cold January afternoon in 1808—in their heads, inside their skins, feeling all the wrenching emotions that were coursing through them.

This is the mysterious magic of writing, when you sit in front of your computer (or, in the old days, in front of your typewriter or your quill pen or whatever) and with nothing more than your brain and your fingers, you conjure up a whole world that you believe in. Not only are you seeing, smelling, and touching things that aren’t there, you’re feeling emotions that you’ve conjured out of thin air. In a way, it’s a socially acceptable form of insanity.

But it’s also a way of forming connections to people who may be very different from ourselves, and not just because they’re fictional. In the case of the novel I’m working on now, the main characters (one of whom is based on a real person) are ensconced in a world that no longer exists, the world of 200 years ago. In other cases, like that of the contemporary novel I wrote, it may be that their personalities and outlooks on life are just different from my own. But when I write their dialogue and enter into their heads, I feel a direct and gut-level connection to that essential human part of them that exists in me as well. (In fact, come to think of it, it’s more or less what happens to my characters—people viewing each other as alien but coming to realize they actually have something in common—at the ends of each of my novels.)

It isn’t just when you’re writing novels that this weird and magical thing happens. It can happen when you’re reading them too—think about the times reading a novel has made you laugh or (possibly more often) cry. Scientists have actually demonstrated that when you read about things, you’re also experiencing them, in a way. When you read the word “cinnamon,” for example, not only does the part of your brain associated with reading light up, but so does the part of your brain associating with smelling things. And there’s evidence that when we read stories, we’re also using the brain networks that help us navigate real-life interactions. In other words, we think of the characters we’re reading about as though they were real.

You might think you wouldn’t need fiction in order to do that, and maybe sometimes you don’t. After all, why not learn to empathize and deal with people by reading about real people? But it seems to me there’s a barrier inherent in writing about real people that dissolves in the realm of fiction. There’s no way to get inside the skin of someone real—even in a memoir, given that there are all sorts of possibly unconscious defenses and things that get thrown up when we write about ourselves—the way you can with a person who’s a creature of someone’s imagination.

Of course, just because I’ve convinced myself that my characters are real doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to convince anyone else. I’m keenly aware that I have a long way to go, and possibly many drafts, before I end up with a successful novel—if I ever do. But the fact that I’ve at least convinced myself of the reality of my characters gives my some hope that—as the real-life model for one of my minor characters said about himself 200 years ago—“I shall not have labored in vain; I shall not have … often wasted the midnight lamp fruitlessly, nor sacrificed the best worldly prospects for an imaginary good; although deferred, I shall be in the end gratified by a sure reward.”

Do Characters Need to Be Likable?

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently appeared on a panel on historical fiction at the AIW annual writers’ conference in Washington, D.C., and that I had a couple of thoughts I didn’t get a chance to voice at the session. My last post focused on the wisdom of changing facts–historical or geographic or otherwise–when writing fiction.

Now for my second thought, which also relates to both historical and non-historical fiction. While discussing the challenges of writing historical fiction, I mentioned the difficulty of making characters who hold very different beliefs from our own sympathetic to a modern reader. Only I didn’t say “sympathetic,” I said “likable.”

I then got a question from a woman in the audience. “Do you think your characters have to be likable?” she said.

This was a weird moment for me. Here’s the back story: my agent and I have gone several rounds now on whether the main character in my second novel needed to be more “likable.” Frankly, I thought she was likable enough as originally written. But what I saw as “edge,” my agent saw as bitchiness and whininess. My agent was very emphatic about the importance of making the character likable (and making her husband and her daughter likable as well). And–given that my agent’s experience in publishing is far greater than mine–I reluctantly went about softening my character’s edges and eliminating some of what I thought were her best lines. But I continued to ponder the issue. In fact, about six months ago I went to a panel consisting of some of my favorite writers–Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Cathleen Schine–and raised my hand to ask them the very same question the woman in the audience had just posed to me.

Alas, I didn’t get called on when I raised my hand, so I don’t know what those writers would have said. I do know, though, that my two fellow panelists at the AIW conference took the view that characters (and I guess we’re talking here about protagonists, really) DON’T need to be likable. One of them brought up Satan from Paradise Lost, who of course steals the show. Yeah, but–as I pointed out in passing–no one likes a “perfect” protagonist, like God. Plus, Milton gives Satan a dynamite speech.

It’s possible that the rule that your protagonist has to be likable has more force in commercial than literary fiction, although sometimes the line between those two isn’t that clear. My second novel, according to my agent, can be categorized as “commercial women’s fiction,” albeit (I hope) somewhat high-end commercial women’s fiction, and maybe that’s why my agent was so insistent about the likability issue. There do seem to be different rules in the realm of commercial, and certainly of “genre,” fiction. Romance novels, for example, generally follow a prescribed formula. But once you’re in the category of “literary,” you can pretty much do what you want, as long as you do it well.

But regardless of the type of fiction at issue, I do think readers need to want to spend time with the main character. If they find the main character boring, for example, they’ll probably put down the book. What if they find the main character repulsive? Well, someone might say, look at Humbert Humbert in Lolita: an unrepentant pedophile. What could be more unlikable than that? And yet we’re happy to spend time with Humbert, because Nabokov managed to make him, through his wit and his peculiar vision, irresistible. That’s what I meant when I said at the panel that I thought that the author has to work harder when the protagonist isn’t likable, at least in the conventional sense.

What I actually had in mind when I spoke at the panel was the fact that one of the two main characters in my novel A More Obedient Wife was a slave-owner. The challenge for me was to write realistically in the voice of someone who owned another human being, and who thought that was an acceptable thing to do, without alienating 21st-century readers who (like myself) find the concept of slavery to be anathema.

At one point I have my character Hannah Iredell musing about the female slave she owns, Sarah, who–like Hannah herself–desperately misses her absent husband. I have Hannah thinking that it’s difficult, sometimes, to remember that Sarah has feelings just as she does. To me, this was an accurate reflection (or what I imagined to be an accurate reflection) of a slave-owner’s attitude. After all, how could you justify owning another human being if you attributed to them all the thoughts and feelings that you yourself experience? To acknowledge that Sarah did have these feelings seemed to me a mark of humanity on Hannah’s part, a reflection of her underlying ambivalence about slavery. But one of my early readers recoiled when she reached that line, thinking that it made Hannah morally repugnant. Fortunately, other readers don’t seem to have had that reaction.

Maybe “likable” wasn’t the right word–it probably came into my head because of my recent back-and-forth with my agent. But what IS the right word to describe what we look for in a character, what keeps us reading? One of my fellow panelists suggested “compelling.” That’s certainly the word that you’re likely to see in rejection letters–as in, “I just didn’t find the characters compelling.” I got a couple of rejection letters like that for my second novel, early on, and I just shrugged. My agent, on the other hand, told me, “It’s simple, you just have to do this one thing–you just have to make the characters compelling.” But when I asked her how I could do that, she replied that she couldn’t possibly tell me. (Ultimately, it turned out to be a matter of changing the plot. Who knew?)

Compelling, likable, sympathetic. None of these words are particularly specific. And, of course, one person’s “likable” (or “compelling”) is another person’s boring or repellent. As with so many things in writing fiction, it’s pretty subjective. Bottom line: if you can find one person who thinks your character is compelling–AND who is in a position to publish your book–then maybe you don’t have to worry so much about the people who don’t.