Unpleasant characters

(I think I'll start in on Trials tomorrow--I have a couple of left-over production tasks on Trang, but I'm really getting bored with that sort of thing, so it's time to mix it up. In the meantime, I'm going to ramble on about writing and literature!)

I've read books that I've hated, but the character I felt the most violently opposed to, the character I (in all seriousness) wanted to see run over and killed by a garbage truck? That character was Rabbit, from John Updike's Rabbit, Run--the last Updike book I will ever read.

Why did I hate--and I hated this character with a passion--Rabbit so much? Well, part of it was that the book is set in the late 1950s, which was back when it really was a Man's World. Rabbit, being male, has certain prerogatives. For example, he dumps his preganant wife and takes up with a girlfriend. And when he tires of the girlfriend, it's an easy matter for him to get back with his wife, who is expected to be all sweetness and light about everything. Why? Because getting divorced--even when it's not her fault--is going to hurt her far worse than it hurts him, so she'd better toe the line and give him whatever he wants if she knows what's good for her. He knocks up his girlfriend because he refuses to wear a condom--of course she has to go along with that, because the only prospect of respectability she has is to get him to marry her.

Does he feel guilty about occupying such a position of privilege? My stars, why would he? It's a Man's World! Why should he care about what happens to all those silly little gashes around him? It gets worse--there's a silly little gash, his baby daughter, who DIES because Rabbit is such a jackass. How does he feel about that? Guilty? Devastated? Oh, hell no--she's just a girl! Who gives a fuck about some baby gash? He feels...wait for it...sorry for himself. Boo-hoo. Poor Rabbit.

And I cannot emphasize this enough, but there is nothing in the book to suggest that the reader should feel anything but sorry for Rabbit. Poor, poor Rabbit, ruining the lives and KILLING the women around him. I think that, instead of writing more Rabbit novels, Updike should have written the heart-wrenching tale of a poor, poor slave owner whose slaves are always so difficult and give him so much trouble. It's awful, the poor guy sprains his shoulder beating them to death--don't you feel sorry for him? Or maybe a serial killer who kills children--and people act like they can judge him, and the kids are so uncooperative about it all, and life is really difficult for him. Your heart bleeds.

OK, deep breath. (God, I hated that book!) Now, some years later, I read Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys. The protagonist of that novel is not so different from Rabbit--an annoying and overprivileged male Baby Boomer with a wife who has left him (for good reason) but who might come back, and a pregnant girlfriend, plus a juicy co-ed.

But--and this makes all the difference in the world--the main character knows he's a dick. I cannot tell you what a difference that makes. It's not like he's devoid of self-pity, or that he's above taking advantage of his position (oh my God, yes on both counts). He is, however, vaguely aware of other people--he knows that they exist, that they have rights, and that his actions may have an effect on them that is maybe not so positive. It's a tiny bit of self-awareness and self-criticism, but it's just enough for the reader to feel some sort of sympathy toward this guy.

Letting characters basically take the fall for their personalities is key, I think. No one is flawless--everyone has their limitations, even if they're not necessarily horrible people. If you let them own that--let them know that they always do X in a situation when they should probably do Y--and allow them to feel frustrated or disappointed with themselves, that's something that anyone who doesn't suffer from narcissistic personality disorder can relate to.

It also saves you from scapegoating, which is simply not that interesting to read. To trot out another famously misogynistic writer, Kingsley Amis has a terrible, terrible attitude toward women--they're all crazy and evil, except for the one designated Madonna. And yet, Lucky Jim is enjoyed by many people (including myself) who think the rest of his books are not worth the time (not so much because they are offensive as that they are very, very predictable). That's because the central problem for Jim is not that all women (except the designated Madonna) are horrible people, the problem is that he will not stand up to the horrible people in his life. The problem is within. And that's something I think anyone with a little life experience can relate to--there's no way to completely avoid bad people or bad things, the only thing you can control is your response to them.