As I was working on my review of Marcy Dermansky’s excellent novel Bad Marie (up on The Millions, by the way) a few ideas popped up that didn’t really fit in the review. They were mostly questions about how authors connect with readers through “bad” characters—bad meaning anything from those lacking a sense of acceptable morality, to liars, cheaters, criminals and abusers of different kinds, to those characters who are just basically losers, to curmudgeons and those who can’t keep their mouths shut. They are tricksters mostly, as they function in a literary sense.
I should note that as I began working on this post, I came across this awesome essay by Emily St. John Mandel on The Millions (“In Praise of Unlikable Characters”) which nearly silenced me here. She says many things I was thinking, and in much more lucid terms than I could manage. It’s a great read and you should check it out. Anyway, as I said, it nearly convinced me to forgo this post. Nearly. But her essay is framed around likability, which isn’t exactly what I mean to get at.
It seems counterintuitive that we would be drawn to characters of poor moral fiber, but it does make a certain amount of sense when one thinks about it. In any intimate communication, we often connect more readily with others when revealing our faults. This is why relationships bloom much quicker when we’re under the influence or on the Internet, right? It’s how we give ourselves an aura of humanity, by painting in the shadows behind us; and for a writer, it’s how we make a character real. Moreover, in both cases, it makes for a much more interesting narrative that we’re trying to sell someone on. Exhibiting faults, or having a sense of honest dishonesty, creates an intimacy that is far more satisfying than you could have with any character who’s approaching perfection.
On one level, it’s hitting at the secret fears of readers. The fears we have about what kind of people we really are—not who we try to convince others we are, or who we want to be. These are the memes attractive to introspective, personal guilt readers—a group I often fall in with—those in search of catharsis. These are the kinds of faults one cannot help, like Gregor Samsa waking from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. It hurts others, it’s bad, but he can’t help it. That’s life.
On another level, admissions of badness provide a sort of fantasy. It’s an enactment of guilty pleasure taken to extremes. This is why it’s so interesting to see a character like Marie in Bad Marie get drunk at work, or indulge in taboo sexual relationships. You get to go along for the ride, without endangering your own livelihood or marriage. I’m not sure if it’s necessary that these kinds of characters get their comeuppance in the end, but my instinct tells me that it is.
I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t interact with a text on both of these levels at the same time either. Curb Your Enthusiasm is an excellent example of this. The character Larry David, a classic trickster, has a profound capacity to expose the foibles of the society he lives in. He says what we all wish we would say—to a degree anyway—in response to the hypocrisy and idiocy we’re confronted with on a daily basis. Maybe you wouldn’t want to say it exactly like Larry does, but having the daring to speak your mind is something we all wish for at one time or another. Larry certainly has that. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The plot must be satisfied, and the fact that Larry is a spectacular screw-up means that the plot always will be satisfied. No matter how astute he may appear in pointing out the shortcomings of others, the fact remains that Larry is still a card-carrying member of the same idiotic society. He’s the one standing outside a hotel after an earthquake, draped in a bed sheet with a hole cut in it; he’s the one who must apologize to a smug Ted Danson, or sleep alone, or who embarrasses himself beyond all expectation; he’s the loudmouth who reminds you why it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. The end of those long winding plots is where guilty pleasure and catharsis meet.
For those who read like I do, or watch TV like I do, or meet people on the street like I do, a struggling character of poor moral fiber is always more interesting. Someone who falls short of doing the right thing, whether they’re actually trying to do the right thing or not. Then it’s better if they can improve, or at least instructive if they don’t even try to. It’s more honest, and maybe more familiar to how we see ourselves and others.