Monday, 18 August 2014

FATAL FLAWS by Catherine Czerkawska


As prickly as William?
A little while ago, I was asked to speak to a group of readers. One of them had spent many years as a professional editor with one of the big, prestigious publishing corporations. All of them had read the Physic Garden and were interested in talking about it and asking questions. I’ve done plenty of these sessions and you don’t expect everyone to like the book. Some of the questions can be challenging, so you have to be able to think on your feet. All of which is a good thing. But on this occasion something happened that brought me up short.

‘How on earth,’ said this ex-editor personage, ‘Did you manage to write in the first person voice of somebody so unlikeable?’

There was one of those dismayed silences in the group, with everyone trying not to catch my eye. An uneasy stirring. A little murmur of protest. I’ll admit I was gobsmacked. It wasn’t that she was questioning my writing abilities. Not really. She was asking me how I could possibly have written 90,000 words in the voice of a totally unlikeable person. Except that of all the characters I have ever created, and if you include my plays and stories that’s a lot of people, I think William Lang is right up there with my favourites.

I simply love him.

Which was all I could say, really. The story was no hardship because I loved William to bits. Still do. And moreover, as somebody else in the group was quick to point out, even though William lived 200 years ago, you can still find his like today. Many of us know them and some of us think ourselves lucky if we do: elderly Scotsmen, very clever and sometimes self-taught, a little prickly on the outside, but with a loving soft centre, dry, humorous and with all the wisdom of their years. They’ll be doting grandfathers too, given half a chance.

Did it matter that she didn’t like him? Not a bit. But it did get me thinking. Because this was a person who had been an editor, a person of some influence within traditional publishing. And if she had still been working in that role, it would have mattered a lot. Because that would have been her judgement and yet it was one that the rest of the group – voracious readers - disagreed with.

And then it struck me that I've had other responses like that. Not, I hasten to add, from the excellent editor who worked on The Physic Garden, a pearl among editors, who confessed that she too loved William. But in the past, I've had agents and editors telling me that a particular character wasn't likeable enough. And although I’m prepared to admit that sometimes they might have been right, I suspect mostly they were wrong. It was a matter of personal preference. Something to do with their own prejudices. We all have them. But when publishing acquisitions stand or fall by them that’s when the trouble starts. Perhaps, like the advice to decorate a house as blandly as possible if you’re putting it up for sale, this goes some way to explaining so much that is anodyne in contemporary fiction emanating from the big corporations.

Do you have to like your main protagonist to write about him or her? Do you have to like this person in order to enjoy the book? I don’t think so. I rather dislike Jane Eyre, the character, I can’t help it, but I do like the book very much. I don’t like Heathcliff and Cathy at all. Who would? But I love Wuthering Heights almost more than any other novel and reread it practically every year. I don’t much like Fanny Price, but I enjoy Mansfield Park.

As for my poor William, she thought him too dour, too Presbyterian, even though he makes determined efforts not to go to the kirk as often as his family would like. And I think she believed that William had been prone to over-reaction, which is an opinion she shares with a few other readers, and makes a good point for discussion. For anyone who hasn’t read the novel, and without giving away any spoilers, our narrator remembers a time when he is reading in the library of his much wealthier friend, Thomas. There, he comes across a book called The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, complete with illustrations, and is shocked to his youthful core by the pictures he sees there. This is a real book. I was able to see a very old and precious facsimile in Glasgow University Library. But you can also find some of the images online. I remember seeing them for the first time. And I, with all my 21st century assumption of sophistication, was also shocked to the core. The images are very beautiful. But the horror lies in realising their beauty and almost immediately becoming aware of the fact that they are depicting the deaths of women and children, mostly through privation and poverty. You can see some of them here. But be warned before you click on the link, they are not at all comfortable to see!

Anyway, we agreed to disagree about William’s likeability or otherwise, although most of the rest of the group seemed to be on William’s side. But it also got me thinking about all those letters of rejection that said, ‘I liked the book but I didn’t love it.’ Or ‘I loved this book but I couldn’t carry marketing with me.’ (i.e. they didn’t love it.) I used to sigh and resolve to do better next time. Now that I only have to submit a novel if I want to, I realise that liking and loving a character are personal judgments and may have nothing to do with the quality of the book – but more importantly, they may have very little to do with whether or not I enjoy reading a book. If that were the case, neither Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner would be the astonishing reads they undoubtedly are. And as for Scarlett O’Hara? Oh dear me no. Consigned to the outer darkness as terminally unlikeable.

I like my characters flawed, sometimes fatally so. How do you like yours?

12 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

To begin with, I think I said in my review how sympathetic I found William - he's a great character and his nature is essential to how the book works. The only thing I'd add is that I sometimes find myself liking or admiring one of my characters too much and, as a consequence, worry about rendering them too 'nice' to be entirely convincing. Whenever I become aware of that, I pause, make myself look at them more objectively and invariably can find some flaw that humanises them.

Chris Longmuir said...

I invariably prefer flawed characters, and I too have had rejections based on unlikeable characters, and yet, these books seem to be popular. Who on earth wants to read about a character with no flaws whatsoever. It's not realistic - Oh, but I forgot - we write fiction and that's as far away from being realistic that it's possible to be. :)

CallyPhillips said...

T'was ever thus... by strange co-incidence today's S.R.Crockett serial opens with a tongue in cheek dedication which deals to some degree with this issue... and that was in 1897... so some things never change.
he writes: To write that which is in one’s heart at the moment is the only rule

I think we'd do well to remember that!

and you can find the whole thing at www.edebookfest.co.uk or here
http://wp.me/p4dGXP-2I

Plus, of course, plenty more interesting reading at week 3 of the ebook festival. Get it while you can.

Dennis Hamley said...

I don't see the point of writing fiction at all if you're not allowed to have characters who are flawed. It's the flawed characters who make the stories work. Their 'likeability' doesn't depend on the flaws. In 'Paradise Lost', Satan is a great character. God is so perfect as to be absolutely horrible. I've never been told any of my characters are 'unlikeable'. I'm rather sad about that. Surely the unlikeable characters are the very stuff of fiction. For an editor to say that she doesn't 'like' William is appalling, especially when it's used as a reason to dismiss a whole novel. William is among the most attractive, sensitively drawn
fictional characters I have ever encountered. This is why I'm so distressed about the present state of publishing. The older generation of editors with insight, critical acumen and objectivity are fast dying out, to be replaced by shallow people who lack empathy and understanding, have little knowledge of how novels work and, more importantly, how people read them, who are afraid of their own shadows and in dread of marketing. The old values of serious publishing do still exist - exemplified by people like Caroline Royds and David Fickling. But they won't last for ever so we must cherish them while they are still here.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

This was an older editor, now retired. (Not my recent editor who was excellent.) But maybe people become complacent if they reach a stage of seniority where nobody challenges them. Her response did make me think about 'likeability' and the times I've encountered it as an issue in the past. And I begin to wonder if this is something women experience more than men as a response to their fiction. Surely not! It does, as Cally points out, lead on to a wider debate about what constitutes 'good' fiction and why we may need to challenge the ways in which people sometimes judge both readers and writers on what they enjoy.

Mari Biella said...

Personally I found William extremely likeable, Catherine, though as you say it's probably simply down to taste. In any case, I prefer characters with flaws, failings and rough edges. That is what real people are like, in my experience: complicated, and often contradictory.

Dennis Hamley said...

Interesting that she's of the old school, Catherine. Spurred by this thread I've been thinking about readers' reactions to characters in novels. I meet a lot of people in novels who I recognise as deeply unlikeable, even evil. I may hate the qualities they represent but I'm deeply interested in how the author demonstrates them. If it's done well then I catch the character's aura of repellence and accept them much as I appreciate the paintings of Francis Bacon or Heironymous Bosch. But to say I hate the character for his or her own sake as if they lived next door is puerile. The depiction of evil may be disturbing but it's also an aesthetic element in the novel. Only in Jasper fforde might the character actually turn up in your house and kill you. Until that happens you don't have the right to dislike them as actual people.

madwippitt said...

Anti heroes are often far more attractive and interesting - Edgar the nice boy or Edmund the bastard? :-)

Lydia Bennet said...

What worries me is that ex editor's assumption that William WAS unlikeable, as a 'fact' - not that SHE didn't like him which would have been fair enough. She assumed you'd have to struggle to write him because she couldn't warm to him. That's the kind of blinkered thinking we can do without in publishers or editors, who think their own personal opinions are facts which must be shared by all the readers they hope to sell to. Jane Austen makes a point of saying she invented Emma to see if she could create a heroine people didn't like - though in fact Emma is popular, not because she's nice, but because of her flaws and blindness to situations and her tendency to 'think rather too well of herself'. She's a great character. Dennis, I just performed a poem of mine on satan and god in Paradise Lost the other night - I had a crush on Satan and found god a poor character, William Blake rightly realised that Milton was struggling to explain and justify a character against far too many odds - he was 'in shackles'.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

You're right! And that's exactly the assumption she made. I don't like him, so neither will anyone else. In this case, of course, it didn't matter. But if she had been an acquisitions editor, it would have mattered a lot.

Reb MacRath said...

I wonder how often personal 'issues' lie behind rejections. In an early draft of my book Southern Scotch, I'd had the fallen athletic hero weigh 300-plus pounds at the start. Just for 50 pages till he takes a near-fatal beating, then comes back years later rich and thin, hell-bent on revenge. I believed readers could handle his weight if I showed him dreaming of a comeback...someday--then beat him into action mode. Well: one agent took a violent reaction and said my guy's weight was so disgusting that no reader could handle it for even 50 pages. Turned out the agent weight close 350 pounds. I refused to sell out but compromised a little by not specifying Pete McGregor's actual weight..and reducing his excess poundage to 30 pounds or so. The agent still found it disgusting.

Reb MacRath said...

Third line from the end should read: Turned out the agent weighed...