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Grumps, Cranks, and Misanthropes

grouchy-looking-catCan you stand to read books or watch television programs or movies with unlikable protagonists? It certainly is challenging to connect with characters who do, say, or believe things that breach cultural norms, don’t meet our standards of courteousness, or are just plain wrong! It’s easy to distance ourselves as readers when we encounter characters who clearly take delight in hurting others and call them villains. But what about characters who are unlikable in the middle of very sympathetic situations, like navigating difficult life circumstances? It’s more difficult to forgive missteps as a reader when complicated characters don’t meet our expectations, even when they are trying their best.

Author Toni Morrison once wrote, “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” I take Ms. Morrison’s quote to mean that good authors should seek to challenge their readers by helping them question their own assumptions and showing them how their own circumstances shape judgments about others through creating fictional people. Creating unlikable main characters is a great way for writers to explore difficult themes in an otherwise unassuming story about everyday life. Grief is a commonly explored theme in fiction, and these types of stories often produce the most challenging characters to connect with, even though readers might empathize with their terrible losses.

Nora Webster is Colm Toibin’s poignant character study of a woman widowed in her forties who must continue on with everyday existence for her children. It was the subject of a recent book discussion at the library and people’s responses to the titular character prompted me to reflect on how I respond to difficult characters. Toibin presents Nora as a reserved woman whose husband was the center of her world. She had no other interests or work beyond being a wife and a mother in a very conservative Ireland of the late 60s and early 70s. She’s completely unsure of herself, often impulsive and resentful of the well-meaning attempts of friends and family to help her. It’s so tempting to judge her as a character and, in fact, many book discussion participants railed at her, wondering “What’s the matter with her? Why does she act that way?” But Toibin is a clever author and provides glimpses of how she lived her life before her husband died and how different her inner emotional life is now that he is gone. It forces the audience to ask themselves the uncomfortable question, “How would I feel in that circumstance?” Many of us would like to think they would do better, but a good author might make us less sure.

Most of us know David Sedaris for his darkly comic essay collections that center on his family, his childhood, and his exploits as a traveling author. Calypso, his latest effort, has a dark undercurrent of grief as he illustrates his complicated relationships with his siblings, especially his sister Tiffany who died by suicide in 2013. Calypso chronicles his efforts to gather his family together for vacations and holiday celebrations in a hastily-purchased beach house in North Carolina. Sedaris never shrinks away from casting himself as an unlikable narrator of his own stories, often admitting his flaws and his mistakes in dealing with his sister and the rest of his family. Once again, readers can choose to focus on how differently they might react, but Sedaris’ honesty and humor keep him relatable and encourage us to reflect on our own foibles.

Sometimes unlikable characters engage in bizarre and outlandish behavior so the author can explore how past trauma affects their reality. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette chronicles a stay-at-home mother’s attempts to assert herself after completely losing all of her social and professional confidence. Bernadette is the cranky, misanthropic mother of Bee, a precocious middle schooler and the only person Bernadette can stand. Her behavior spins out of control as she tries to connect with her daughter and plan a family trip to Antarctica. Semple’s plot is far-fetched and absurd, but it reveals Bernadette’s intense pain about her massive failures as an architect and the miscarriages she endured before Bee’s birth.

Here’s my professional advice if you run into a character you just can’t stand: stick with the book. Yes, life is too short to read bad books, but if you find other parts of the book or other characters intriguing, enjoyable, or valuable, keep engaging with the unlikable main character. Secondly, ask yourself why you harshly judge a fictional person. Is it because this character does incomprehensible things? Try to put aside your own viewpoint and give the character the benefit of the doubt as you would a good friend. It might make their perspective more clear and let you access the story in a way you couldn’t have if you insisted on applying your own judgments to the book. If all authors only wrote characters we could relate to and cheer for, reading would not only be boring, but also lack any artistic merit. Books should and can comfort us, inform us, and reveal things to us if only we let them.

Kate Tigue is the Head of Youth Services at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the December 27, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

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