Friday, August 16, 2013

Likeable characters?

An article from Slate recently made its way across Facebook regarding “likeable characters.”   The author of that article questioned why we feel the need to make such characters.  I also discussed this issue recently in an interview with author David James Keaton.  The consensus among those who write non-fishing-with-grandpa-stories is that the drive for likeable characters is irrational and unfounded when the evidence of literature at large is presented.  Richard III, Alex from Clockwork Orange, any protagonist in a Charles Bukowski story, these are all examples of characters who do not pass the likeability test (provided by polite society, polite society itself being a toxic hive of hypocrisy and repression) and yet readers never tire of them.

 I’m on my last year at Minnesota State University, earning an MFA in creative writing (because, goddammit, if you’re a writer in the 21st Century, that’s what you do!).  During this last spring semester, I participated in a workshop where I turned in stories that will be included in my thesis.  Not one of the five stories I presented passed the likeable characters test.  One sensitive little urchin actually wrote on my last story (a charming tale of a badass woman putting a piece of shit nun over her knee and spanking her in a Santa display at a shopping mall), “I hated the main character so much I didn’t want to read the story.”  Now, aside from the fact that that is one of the most terrible comments you can give a writer, I question that person’s inability to set aside his addiction to the Hallmark world of rainbows and lollipops and approach a piece of fiction with an open mind.  I was also attacked, time and again, by the two women in the class who could not separate the world of fiction from the real world.  In one of my stories, an English teacher goes to a porno theater in the 1970s.  He is nearly nabbed by the police in an undercover sting.  One of the women in the class said that she worked at a high school (in a very small, Minnesota town), and that none of the English teachers there would ever go to a porno theater.  Never mind that her comment in no way construed constructive criticism.  The only possible reaction to her thinking is, “Huh?”

 We are coming to a bizarre point in the history of literature where people want realism, but they want a Disneyesque realism where there are no “bad” people.  This is, of course, a contradiction.  You cannot have realism without some dirt.  One of the complaints the women frequently tossed at me was about my inclusion of strippers, porn stars, and hookers in my stories.  Now, those aren’t the only women I write about, but those are the women who catch the attention of the Polite Police.  My question is: Are strippers, hookers, and porno stars, not people as well?  Do they not deserve to have their stories told?  Should fiction create a world where women are not economically compelled to go into the sex industry?  Most importantly, will sweeping these characters under the proverbial rug and pretending they don’t exist do anything to improve the conditions that cause women to pursue these careers?

 These thoughts are on my mind as I work on two major projects—my thesis, which is a collection of inter-connected stories beginning in the 1950s and ending in the early 2000s where we see the American male get weaker while American women get stronger, and ending with a declaration by a young man in the early 2000s to be sensitive to the needs of others without compromising his own needs; and a novella I am writing called Daddy Problems, about a cab driver who tries, with disastrous results, his hand at being a pimp.  I worry that there could be a wall of resistance among editors of journals (where the stories for my thesis will have to first be published if I am to publish the whole collection) simply because they want to sweep “unlikeable” opinions under the rug.  I still remember the turbulent first years of “political correctness,” where nobody was allowed to write about anybody different from themselves (gender or ethnic-wise).  It seems that post-9/11, uber-puritanitcal ‘mainstream’ America is heading for even darker times of what I consider to be flat-out censorship.

 Anybody else have thoughts on these issues?


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