Monday, October 1, 2007

But Would You Invite Him To Dinner?

The China story, now titled "First Rites," is finally finished and submitted. One of my readers mentioned that she "liked the story but didn't like all the characters," which raises an interesting question. My friend, under close questioning, said that "didn't like" doesn't, for her, mean that the characters were implausible or not well drawn. It means she wouldn't want to be friends with them.

It's an unfortunate truth that sympathetic characters make for more popular fiction. Many -- maybe even most -- readers wish to be able to identify with a story's protagonist. I say "unfortunate" because it seems to me that some of the most interesting fiction features characters that are complex but not necessarily likable. I wouldn't want to be best friends with Raskolnikov, Scarlett O'Hara, Genly Ai, or Severus Snape. But I'm in finding out what goes on in their minds and hearts, which is not at all the same thing. However, the reality is that unless your protagonist is sympathetic, your audience will be much smaller.

Some of these thoughts were prompted by today's arrival in the mail of the December ASIMOV'S, which includes my story "The Rules." Neither Arthur Carmody nor Glenn Tartell are likable. Ah, well.


Mr. JM said...

It's nice to see that one of my favorite science fiction writers has a blog at last.

Thank you; as an aspiring writer, this is like finding gold.

My name is John-Mark, by the way.

I actually satirized you on my blog The Science Fiction Daily (with the utmost respect, of course).

I just got my December Asimov's as well, and I'm looking forward to your story; I'll read anything you write, at this point.

Unknown said...

Ms. Kress,

I just heard my first Nancy Kress story on Escape Pod, wonderful! I'll be looking for you in the bookstore. Thank you.


Nancy Kress said...

Thank you, both John-Mark and Josh. But, as the Virgin Mary? I mean...I do have two children!

none said...

I wouldn't invite Raskolnikov to dinner--he's too rude!

I'm about two-thirds of the way through the novel atm, and I think if it had started with the murders, I probably wouldn't be as interested in reading it. But instead it starts by showing us the situation Raskolnikov is in, and the grinding poverty, and we share his thoughts and feelings, and so come to understand why he does what he does. And his increasing paranoia, in which every conversation is either a confession or an accusation, is riveting.

An advert on British tv a while back I think went to the heart of the issue. "The protagonist must be likeable--" says one voice. "No!" says the second. "We must like them!"

I think it's only that making the character likeable is the easiest way of making the reader like them. It's much harder to take, say, a torturer, and make the reader like them in spite of themselves, as Alan Campbell does in Scar Night.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you need to like the characters to love a story. Fine literature explores the sophistication of human nature and I appreciate that. I hate it a lot when authors try to forge amiable characters, and usually become resentful of such characters.

none said...

I can understand feeling resentment if the author's trying too hard--I recently read an ebook where the protagonist was just so loooooooooved by everybody. Ew. But I have to have some liking or sympathy for the character, some emotional investment, or I can't continue reading. If I only want to learn about human nature, I can read a psychology book ;).