Do you ever begin a book by a writer you respect, only to find that this time the author has created a character you want to “slap upside the head”? The character, usually the protagonist, is making stupid, self-destructive decisions. You cringe. How can you care about the character, usually the protagonist, when they obviously are on a self-induced, downhill slide to sure disaster?
I just finished a novel (Fiona Range by the talented Mary McGarry Morris) that I loved, a novel published in 2000. I missed it when it came out, probably because I was trying to meet a deadline on a nonfiction book and teaching full-time. Maybe just as well I didn’t read it until this week, because I wouldn’t have had time then to reflect on how I could like a book so much when the main character, Fiona Range, is blinder than Oedipus.
Which led me to think about Oedipus and Greek theater. The audience knew what Oedipus did not–that he’d killed his own father and married his mother. Teiresias (the blind prophet) tells Oedipus, “. . . you, with both your eyes, are blind: You cannot see the wretchedness of your life.”
A component of Greek theater was the audience knowing tragedy was imminent, and holding their collective breath, waiting for the protagonist’s downfall. It worked then and it works now–if done skillfully.
I don’t know if I can do it successfully, but I admire the authors who can. So, what is the key to creating a reckless, foolish, hell-bent-on-their-own destruction character and still keep the reader turning the page instead of tossing the novel?
As a reader, I want the characters to have a goal, however unrealistic. I want them motivated to reach that goal. I want to care enough about them to cheer them on, even though I see them making mistake after mistake. I want to know they are trying to solve their problems, resolve their conflicts, fix their lives. And even as I hold my breath, waiting for the next predicament, I have faith they will eventually prevail.
So maybe we can take a lesson from Aristotle’s Poetics. When we create heroes or villains, give them some nobility, some goodness, some vulnerability. Make them intelligent, if misguided; determined, if weak; persistent, if hindered, even loving if hateful. Show light penetrating the dark side. Care about them yourself, and the reader will respond.
I won’t forget Fiona, and I’ll try to take my own advice while I work on the sequel to my novel.