Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?

Women writers, have you ever been told that your female protagonist isn’t “likeable”? Ever been told that after you wrote an autobiographical novel? When my agent sent mine out, that was the response we got. The editors said, “Great writing, but that character, she’s not nice enough.” That response reminds me of strangers on the street, shouting out at me to me to smile. (I’m 44, when will that stop?) Author Ayelet Waldman said at a reading that she gets that same comment about likeability almost every time she writes. It was on Waldman’s Facebook page today that I saw this link to an excerpt from an interview with novelist Claire Messud in Publishers Weekly. Here’s to characters that are ALIVE.

via Salon from Publishers Weekly:

I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

10 thoughts on “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?

  1. This is a major grumble with me in the history of criticism of Shakespeare’s female characters. One of my main areas of published work is the character Isabella in “Measure for Measure”. There is a huge history of the play being criticised on the grounds that Isabella isn’t likeable, and none of those people have ever criticised “The Tempest” because Prospero isn’t likeable, or “The Merchant of Venice” because there isn’t a single male character in it who IS likeable.

  2. I came across this topic on some forums already and I guess this is pretty much when you separate the writer from the reader: As a writer you want to create good characters. Which means, not all of them are likeable by all readers. As a reader, you have the choice of reading books for various reasons. Some only read books that were written in a good style, some read for the plot alone, some try to find both – which is very hard! Well, there are probably various other types of readers. Me, I’m often drawn to books that have interesting details about them. Sometimes even the genre mix makes me want to read a book, even though genres are not that important (take The Time Traveler’s Wife for example: this is a romance book with science fiction elements – since people often put this in the scifi section you get a lot of misleading review because scifi fans tried reading it as if it was a scifi book. That’s a huge problem when it comes to genres.)

  3. That reminds me about that time someone asked a female writer when one of her female characters was going to be raped ( http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/470626.html if you don’t know it) because that was “realistic” and she “had to have respect for her work”
    Sometimes people don’t know what “realistic” and “artistic integrity” means about female characters. And sometimes they just use that words as a excuse to justify what kind of female characters they want to see in fiction.

  4. http://www.tlynnfaz.com/Stop-Telling-Women-to-Smile

    Though, admittedly, I don’t know what kind of book you’re trying to sell and there are different kinds of readers. Unless someone is forced to read a book for a class, no one is obligated to read what an author has written. I read plenty of books that feature characters I would not want to be friends with. But I also stop reading plenty of books when the characters’ lives aren’t compelling and there’s nothing to the style of the novel that inspires me to keep reading. If someone doesn’t want to read a book with problematic characters it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unintelligent or that they don’t like being challenged. But time is a valuable commodity and most people are not going to waste it on something they don’t enjoy. Sometimes if a character is too problematic he or she can come across as badly written.

    • hi Cat,

      My character was compelling and very real. I ended up editing to make her more likeable by taking out a few lines of her worst behavior, flashbacks to explain her past/ sympathy when she was a kid, and having her transition more in the end. And then all the editors said, great writing, no plot. That, I understood more, I am way more into character and language than plot. But this time around, I have a great plot…


      • Hi Margot,

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything about your character specifically. This is just a topic I find interesting both as a reader and as someone writing to try and appeal to a wide audience. I think editing is an important part of writing but if you’re having to compromise your vision too much, maybe you should consider self-publishing to have the kind of freedom you do on your blog. And I definitely understand about prioritizing character over plot. I often have a compelling character in mind but no story.

        • Hi Cat,

          No worries, it is fascinating to think about. Re vision and appeal to audience: for me, the draft I edited to create a more likeable character was good for me, I learned a lot, mainly that the best way to show character is through action, thus…plot! So when editors told me the plot issue, I “got” it, but was not willing to edit at that point, because, I think the story was too autobiographical to create plot at that point. But now, I look at plot as way to dramatize emotions, to create a kind of universal metaphor, like you feel like the world is caving in and in the story you actually make the world cave in. That’s working for me, so I have a great plot without it feeling contrived.


          • Also, I did publish a version of the novel as a short story in an anthology, so that was a vindication in some ways…

          • And yes, self-publishing is a great option these days and nice to know this story will get out no matter what.

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