Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgement that ‘the characters in this novel were not worthy of depiction’. Now it was true that these characters were not heroic, or instantly sympathetic in that button-pressing write-by-numbers sort of way. They were people who struggled with their situations and never managed to resolve them, they were people who made mistakes and who were flawed, they were people who either couldn’t shake off unhealthy obsessions or ran away from conventional happiness – but what’s all this about being ‘worthy’? Since when have we decided that characters in novels need to be moral paragons? And yet I do see this more and more in reviews I read, the endless cry for characters to be wholly, engagingly and consistently sympathetic.
So what does it mean for a character to be sympathetic? In its most basic form, it means that the reader has to care about their fate in some way. It means that we are brought to a position of understanding their motives and actions by the author. The adorable Jenny always says that she needs to see that the character is loved or appreciated by someone else in the novel. And my dear friend Fugitive Pieces used to say that she much preferred novels where she could see that the author genuinely liked his or her own characters.
But I become increasingly concerned that what this plea for sympathetic characters actually means is a strong cultural pressure on people, in life as in fiction, to behave according to certain unwritten norms. For instance, I’ve just joined a new writing circle, and one of the authors is writing a book which features a battered wife. She is under a lot of pressure over this character, whom the other writers judge to be ‘too passive’, and ‘too pessimistic’. Opinions have been expressed that this character must at least show a determination to save herself, a strong desire to escape her situation, and full condemnation of her husband’s behaviour. Now of course, if this character were indeed feisty, determined and insightful, she most certainly would not have ended up a battered wife in the first place! Novels have a job to do of broadening our inner horizons and helping us to share experiences we might never otherwise have, and they give voice to people who have none. But can they do that, if we maintain a demand for characters to be ‘sympathetic’ according to cultural requirements that very few real people ever meet? Isn’t the fault at least in part one of intolerance of the reader, a lack of compassion borne from unreasonable cultural pressures that unjustly value extroversion, optimism and pro-activeness and unjustly deride introversion, gentleness and uncertainty?
I also feel dubious about this demand for sympathetic characters when it often seems to mean sympathetic female characters. Men are let off lightly, whilst it seems as ever to be the female protagonists who must bear the burden of society’s behavioural demands. I have to wonder whether this call for sympathetic characters is not in fact a flaw arising from a predominantly female publishing world, and certain genres heavily weighted towards a female audience, in which women are, as ever, brutally hard on their own sex. When I was discussing this issue with Mr Litlove on the weekend, he pointed out that we have to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others, and maybe this lack of compassion for characters arises from the ever-diminishing sympathy we seem to have for ordinary failings, everyday flaws.
People do good things and they do bad things; such is the nature of the human condition. Our greatest qualities can lead us into making our biggest mistakes, our unredeemable parts sometimes turn out to be essential. I think that the best characters manage to awaken a truly complicated sympathy in the reader, where we recognise how impossible it is to make judgements at all. And if readers are often chafing at the bit against characters who do not strike them as people they could care about, then maybe it’s partly because authors, striving too hard to awaken their sympathy, end up manufacturing it in artificial ways that fool no one, rather than allowing it to develop in a genuine way for ordinary, complex, flawed protagonists. Never before have readers had so much influence over authors; we really must be careful what we wish for.