I recently heard Sarah Perry, author of the Essex Serpent, being told by a reader that they didn’t much like the novel’s protagonist, Cora. They went on to add that they certainly didn’t see why the other characters in the novel were so attracted to her. I held my breath. I was poised to hear how poor Perry would deal with such a comment, feeling the excruciation on her behalf as if a reader had just told me that they didn’t think much of my character. But Perry’s reply surprised me, ‘Well, you know,’ she said to the reader (in words to this effect), ‘Cora isn’t real, it’s all just a story I’ve made up, and Cora, like all characters, is just a plot device.’ I was holding my breath again, but for a different reason this time, exhilaration, my mind raced at what she’d just said. It was so refreshing and yet so at odds with how I feel about the imaginary person I carry about in my head and miss terribly when I’ve finished writing the story. The interviewer too sounded astounded, as if the author was pulling back the curtain Dorothy-style to reveal that characters aren’t magical beings at all.
As I let this idea settle I decided the truth lies somewhere in between, characters are indeed plot devices, but the characters we fall in love with appeal to our emotions as well as our heads. There is something about memorable characters that inspire us, they possess traits we admire, and make us wish that we were them. Strong characters are often game changers, but the question I grapple with is; do they actually have to be likeable? Some of the best characters, the ones that really stay with me, aren’t especially likeable but they are compelling. Take Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Ketteridge, and just about all of Lionel Shriver’s protagonists. These individuals are different, interesting and intriguing but I wouldn’t want to be them, or friends with them.
And what does likeable mean, anyway? I recently took The Land Girl on a blog tour and I was interested to see the reactions to Emily, my protagonist. Reader/reviewers really liked how she transformed significantly during the course of the novel, they liked that she stood up to authority, learnt from her mistakes and fought for what she believed in. Emily’s passionate too about the thing she cherishes the most, and this was also an admirable quality. These things combined seemed to be what made her likeable. Whether or not she should be likeable, whether heroic would be a more appropriate word, and whether it’s a necessity of particular genres are all questions I continue to mull over. I often wonder if male characters are held up to the same scrutiny and expectation of being likeable. It isn’t the case in real life, and I suspect fiction reflects that exactly.
What Perry says is true, characters are constructs, but we also create a life that our reader inhabits. If we as writers breathe life into characters, let them make mistakes but ultimately become heroes of their own lives, then surely we create a being who is so much more than just likeable.