Liking Characters

Do we have to like the characters we write and do our readers have to like them also? The question came from a review for my partner's new novel, Stepmothers Support Group, where one of the reviewers disapproved of two of the main male characters, because both behaved badly towards the women they were with. One, still in his teens, and emotionally young, abandoned his pregnant girl friend, the other, much older, reacted badly to his lover becoming pregnant. From a male point of view both reactions were understandable, which is not to say they were excusable. At a later point both accept they acted badly.

But can you criticise a novel because the characters act shabbily? Or because you dislike their morals? Authors are not the people we write, although fragments of us go into creating them, and partly my thoughts we gelled by knowing the second of the male characters was loosely based on me, even if the incident wasn't, and partly because many of my own characters are vile and untrustworthy and do far far worse things than those two above. Now I'm writing three books set in 15th C Venice that's more true than ever. The Pope regarded Venice as a brothel. It was said by other Italian cities they had more assassins than gondolas. You don't get to rule the Adriatic and be responsible for dismembering the Byzantine empire by playing nicely.

There is another point to this. And it relates to the picture that goes with this, a portrait of me in my early twenties by an artist called Christo Coetze. A book full of perfectly behaved characters would be boring. As boring as a life full of perfectly behaved friends, colleagues and lovers. I met Christo in Spain, when I threw in my job to write a (bad) novel. See Getting from Z-A. He was one of a crowd of spoilt, dissolute exiles along a particular stretch of coast that seemed to attract them. The night he invited me to a midnight banquet in a deserted barn I met arms dealers, retired gangsters, aristocrats, a Vogue model, and an art collector. I got propositioned by both sexes, and offered more contraband than I knew existed.

They were interesting people. But behaving themselves was not an idea that occupied much space in any of their heads. Bitching yes, avoiding the law, sleeping with each other, making money, wondering who this kid was and what he was doing crashing their company. All of the above.

But niceness, no...

Yet I remember them more clearly than a hundred people I've met since. And a particular expression of tiredness and anguish on Christo's face in a moment he thought no one was looking at him has stayed with me as clearly as if he featured in a Francis Bacon painting and it hung on the wall in front of me. I'm still trying to find the words to describe it. He said he thought his painting was a perfect likeness. I'd like to return the compliment.

© joncg