Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Main characters: do we need them to be our friends?

Thanks to awesome short-story writer and new Facebook friend Valerie Fioravanti, I saw this interview with Claire Messud about her new book The Woman Upstairs.

I love a lot of things that Messud says in the interview. I love what she said about illuminating a particular human experience and what she said about women and anger. I relate to what she said about how we feel when our life hasn't taken the shape we thought it would.

It's her response to the last question, though, that really struck me. The interviewer asks if Ms. Messud would like to be friends with the main character of her book. Messud replies that the question itself is irrelevant (and maybe a little stupid).

Unfortunately, in the world of romance and women's fiction, it isn't irrelevant. We're always told that our characters must be likable and relatable to the point where they become bland sometimes. I can't tell you how often I feel my secondary characters take over a book because they're allowed to flaws and do bad things. Messud's answer made me want to stand up and cheer. In fact, I might have jumped up in my living room and yelled something about speaking truth to power.

Here's the ugly truth, though. As much as I love what Messud said, I still want to have someone in the story that I can relate to somehow. She lists a couple of heroes of stories in her reply and I have to admit that I've never understood why anyone likes the book Lolita. I think Humbert Humbert is disgusting. There has to be something redeemable in that person whose eyes I'm seeing through and whose shoes I'm walking in to get me into the story. Otherwise I lose interest. Or in certain cases start hoping the main character is going to get killed which is also not good. So I love what she said, but feel a little bit hypocritical about it in terms of what I like to read.

Do I have to want that person as a friend? I don't think so. I would not want to be friends with Carrie in Homeland. She's exhausting. Do I love her as a heroine? Absolutely.

So what do you think about it? Is the question irrelevant? Do you have to want to be friends with the main character?


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Stephanie Doyle said...

Great post Eileen... something that I will need to think about all day.

Write now I want to bitch slap the heroine in my book so no... we're not friends.

But I agree with that in romance/women's fiction - the truth is that "popular" books are typically books that feature more likeable heroines.

Although the hero can be a complete ass.... go figure.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Okay - that was Right now... but it doesn't shock my that I would mess up a sentence even thinking about my heroine... because I hate her that much!

Maureen McGowan said...

I don't think the question is irrelevant or stupid... but I do agree with Messud.
But that's for me and my reading tastes and what I like to get out of a book.
I think instead of rambling in the comments, I'm going to post about this tomorrow. :) Because there's no way I'm wading into the best movie ever territory.

Eileen said...

I can't wait to hear what you have to say, Maureen. I couldn't get myself to pick a "best movie ever." There was a time that I probably would have said Annie Hall, but now Woody Allen gives me the heebie jeebies.

Anonymous said...

I've heard about that book, and it sounds really interesting... and the protagonist seems like she would be fascinating to read about, but not necessarily likeable..

I'll be thinking about this all day, because sometimes the likeable heroine can be so bland.

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