I recently finished Tales of Burning Love, by Louise Erdrich. The book centers around a man named Jack Mauser, the women who love or have loved him, and their families. Jack is a womanizer—a woman-lover, one might say, as he approaches all his encounters with as pure a heart as a womanizer could. One of his (successive) wives is an academic who follows her desires both to seduce an underage student and live in a convent. Another is a precise, controlling dentist who loves dogs. One of them is an accountant who, when she married Jack, was already married to a man in prison for life. Another met Jack when an electric shock deflated her lungs, he gave her imperfect but life-saving mouth to mouth, and she sued him. Two of them become each other’s lovers. All of them are fascinating.
Interesting characters are what drive interesting fiction. They are the still or whirling center of a storm frequently of their own creation. It’s a testament to Louise Erdrich’s skill that while these characters do things that may seem cruel or petty, we can’t help but love them.
I’m teaching a creative writing class on character at the University of Alaska Southeast next spring, and character is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. What is it that makes a character interesting? And, as a separate question, what is it that makes us care about them? Does one result from another?
A few years ago, I found myself following a discussion about the novel The Woman Upstairs. An interviewer had asked author Claire Messud about the protagonist of the book, Nora. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? “ the interviewer asked, adding “Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”
Messud answered “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao?…. If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
I was then writing The One that Ran Away, the novel I’m currently sending out to agents, and I was struggling with the character of Willow, a narcissistic, self-destructive artist. Willow was selfish and cruel. To me, she was also fascinating—but at least one reader told me she had difficulty even getting through Willow’s sections, she disliked her so much. For a while, I felt justified by Messud’s answer. Willow wasn’t meant to be anyone’s friend.
Then I started thinking about characters I like, some of whom Messud lists. Not all of them are “unlikable” or “unsympathetic;” I feel sympathy for Hamlet. I like Oscar Wao.
The characters I find the most interesting have conflicting traits, and they are conflicted, themselves. They want something, even if what they really want is different from what they think they want. They feel. They act. Many of the characters in Messud’s list feel love. They struggle with that love and how it manifests in the real world. In Messud’s novel Nora loves a man and a woman, a couple, who end up betraying her. Love makes people vulnerable; both vulnerability and love make them more human, even if their love is a monstrous, manipulative thing.
The Willow of my earlier drafts felt. She acted. I didn’t, however, make clear her love for her daughter and how that love conflicted with her more selfish desires. I don’t think it’s a requirement that readers like characters as they like their friends, or that characters be endearing, but I do think love, even love of oneself, makes for a more fully rounded character—and provides for a wealth of potential internal conflict, which makes a character more interesting.
Mary Catharine Martin is a Juneau writer currently sending out her book, The One that Ran Away. It interweaves the stories of three generations of runaways and spans rural Louisiana in the 1930s to modern-day Las Vegas and Southeast Alaska.