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Character: Likeability versus profoundly Important Actions

Juliet Annan at The Penguin Blog quotes James Wood on foolish Amazon "reader reviews:" "with their complaints about "dislikeable characters", confirms a contagion of moralising niceness. Again and again, in book clubs up and down the country, novels are denounced because some feeble reader "couldn’t find any characters to identify with", or "didn’t think that any of the characters ‘grow’".

She then posits that "For fictional characters to work on the page, for them to grip you with their antics, they’ve got to fascinate. That’s far more likely to happen with flawed or even dislikeable characters."

I’d say flawed yes, but perhaps more accurately, complex characters are the ones who best hold reader interest. Those who must grapple with difficult issues, live through traumatic situations, solve dilemmas, act, and deal with consequences…

…and to some extent, I think we readers must, contrary to what Wood says, be able to identify with these characters in order to empathize and connect, and care about what happens to them…this explains why some great works may fall flat on first reading, but sing the second time round, years later, after a requisite amount of life experience has taken its flesh.

Staying with Wood’s Guardian article, one finds this on vital literary characters:

"…it often seems that James’s characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them.The vitality of literary character has then, perhaps, less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility – let alone likeability – than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters."

…which approaches I think, Matthew Arnold, following Aristotle, who names seriousness a tenet of greatness, where the import of the work is clear, the depth of the author’s commitment to ‘truth,’ to an honest rendering of an important message, is written into every character.

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3 Responses to “Character: Likeability versus profoundly Important Actions”

  1. brian palmu Says:

    This is an important avenue of thought, and I agree with Wood. Contemporary poetry is often lauded for its authorial "spirituality", that is, the reader feels the poet is not only a good person, but a spiritually sensitive or enlightened one. Of course, this — in itself — has nothing to do with the quality of the poetry.
    Tolstoy said that "happy people have no stories", and while it’s not entirely accurate, for purposes of the creation of characters in novels, it certainly is. Conflict happens, at base, between good and evil (yes, those hoary old pre- postmodern words), and without it, a novel (and often a poem) will be flat.
    This all plays into literature as the new anodyne, replacing new age spirituality which in turn replaced the  organizational dominance of that ole time religion.

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    Good to hear from you Brian. 

    Much I think depends on the reader. Whether or not he wants a feel-good read, or something more challenging, provoking, enlightening…

  3. Amateur Reader Says:

    If anything, I prefer unlikeable, unsympathetic characters. They keep me on my toes.

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