The Unsympathetic Character, Revisited

I spent several hours yesterday listening to the rest of Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22, not just because I said I was going to but because it finally engaged me enough to keep going. There are some good scenes, funny or moving or both. There are some vivid characters and great dialogue. But in the end I felt it dealt in a banal and contrived way with things I care deeply about–the way social media “connectedness” might displace real life connections; the way loneliness can open in a long marriage; our midlife grappling with the ways life has failed to match our youthful dreams and whether that’s okay. I couldn’t forgive that banality and contrivance. And while I sometimes liked Alice, and came to sympathize with her at moments, I didn’t feel she breathed much life into the collection of stereotypes that made her up.

And that would be that, except for a few things that made me realize I had more to say about the whole notion of sympathetic characters.

First, litlove commented on my last post that maybe “the problem lies . . . in the way we think about ‘sympathy.’” Hmm.

Then I remembered the late, great Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, a novel that covers some of the same territory as Gideon’s. Polly, Colwin’s main character, makes much more morally troubling choices than Alice does. The back blurb tells us Polly has an affair, and let’s just say Colwin’s ending is not neat and contrived like Gideon’s. At the end of Wife 22 everything is perfectly perfect. Family Happiness is partly about giving up the need to be perfect. Almost the last line of the novel, the thing that has stuck with me all these years, is this:

Polly felt her heart break open to love and pain, and to the complexity of things.

I didn’t approve of Polly’s actions (and I don’t think the book asks me to), but I understood them, and I sympathized with her, even when she’s wrong or foolish, in a way I never did with Alice. That sympathy came not from the character being likable (though she was) or nice or doing the right thing, but from Colwin’s ability to make me care about her.

And then I thought, What the hell? I wrote a post about sympathy and fiction and never mentioned George Eliot? This must be remedied at once! Now, you know how authors talk about “plot bunnies” and get all excited about a new story idea? This is how I feel about Eliot and sympathy. It’s my literary-critical bunny. (If your eyes are glazing over at the thought, you can duck out now with these take-aways: I was meh on Wife 22 but there was enough good stuff I’d consider reading Gideon again, and if you like chick-lit more than I do or the novel’s subject matter isn’t as hot-button for you, you might enjoy it. Also, Laurie Colwin is amazing but don’t read Family Happiness if you can’t stand to read about adultery. I’d suggest Happy All the Time or A Big Storm Knocked It Over as better fits for a romance-reader who wants to try her.)

Why turn to George Eliot when talking about sympathy with fictional characters? Because she had a lot to say about it. Arguably, her whole fictional project, the moral underpinning of her realism, is an education in sympathy. The passages in which she pauses in her narrative to lecture her reader on the subject are for me some of the most memorable and best loved in Victorian literature. Among them are the opening pages of Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, “In Which the Story Pauses a Little.” Eliot imagines a reader protesting that her clergyman character is not perfect or preachy enough. Her purpose, she explains to this reader, is to depict people and things as they really are, not as we might wish they were. Why? Because our real-life

fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people–amongst whom your life is passed–that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire–for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields–on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.

I’ve restrained myself from quoting five pages, but you can read it all here.

Sympathizing with fictional characters, Eliot suggests, might teach us to sympathize with real people. And thus it’s important that fictional characters not all be nice, likable, idealized, because the real people with whom we must sympathize are not. (It’s worth noting that this passage comes from a novel that made me sympathize with a woman who commits infanticide). Sympathy here does not reside in the character, which takes us back to litlove’s point that “we’re thinking about sympathy the wrong way.” Rather, sympathy is a moral imperative placed on the reader, an act we must perform, and the author’s responsibility is to help us do it.

This tension is inherent in the dictionary definitions of “sympathy.” One (OED) definition is “conformity of feelings, inclinations, or temperament, which makes persons agreeable to each other.” In this sense, we find “sympathetic” characters who are like us, and the need to make characters sympathetic limits what they can be or do. But sympathy can also mean “the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another” or “the quality or state of being . . . affected by the suffering or sorrow of another; a feeling of compassion.” And in that sense, any character can be sympathetic, as long as the author finds a way to make us feel for them. Eliot’s main strategy for evoking that sympathy is her omniscient narrator, who is not only all-seeing, explaining to us the motives for her characters’ actions, but deeply compassionate even as she is unsparing about the characters’ flaws. Thus when I read Middlemarch, I come to sympathize not only with naive Dorothea Brooke, who wants so badly to do good but sometimes goes about it in rather foolish ways, but with the the utterly shallow and unredeemed Rosamund Vincy. I don’t sympathize with everything they do, and certainly sympathy doesn’t mean excusing their errors; I do feel moments of compassion for even the weakest and worst of her characters. In fact, I sympathize with their weakness, because I am weak sometimes too. I think Eliot makes it “safe” to sympathize with them (and thus with our own weakness), because her narrator extends them compassion as well as condemnation.

Eliot is implicitly arguing against other visions of the novel’s role in the moral education of its reader. In his Rambler [an 18th-century periodical] essay “On Fiction,” for instance, Samuel Johnson argues that since novels are read by the young and idle women, people who really need educating, the novelist should depict good people being rewarded and bad punished, and show us characters worth emulating. Otherwise, we might actually be led to sympathize (horrors!) with flawed people:

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness, for being united with so much merit.

Jane Austen is a writer more in this Johnsonian tradition. Much as I love her, she turns a far “colder, harder eye” on her characters than Eliot does. Characters like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or the Crawfords in Mansfield Park could be depicted sympathetically, but Austen doesn’t do so.

Of course, whatever novelists do to invite readers’ sympathy for their characters, it doesn’t always work, or work on every reader. There are people who like Mary Crawford, hate Fanny Price, and can’t stand Middlemarch. I think that readers of Wife 22 are supposed to sympathize with Alice Buckle; I found I couldn’t because she seemed so self-centered and lacking in self-knowledge, and there was no omniscient narrator to filter or comment on her and help me find a way to sympathize.

This failure of sympathy is something Eliot anticipates. Indeed, it’s not only inevitable but desirable. The omniscient narrator is a fictional device. No one could or would want to be that all-seeing, sympathetic consciousness in real life. In Middlemarch, Eliot comments that she doesn’t expect people to be much moved by Dorothea’s unhappiness when the reality of her marriage to Casaubon fails to live up to her dreams, for such disappointment “is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual.” By pointing this out, the narrator demonstrates that she is moved and sympathetic; but she understands–and extends her sympathy to–those coarser real people who fail to be moved:

[i]f we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of the roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

In her novella The Lifted Veil, an odd little work of speculative fiction, Eliot imagines a character who lacks this “wadding of stupidity.” I always thought of this novella as a kind of philosophical hypothetical: what would it be like if the omniscient narrator were a real person? Latimer, the novella’s first-person narrator, develops a kind of clairvoyance that gives him both visions of the future and the ability to read the thoughts of those around him–or rather, since he can’t control this ability, the thoughts of others “would force themselves on my consciousness like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument.” Imagine if you did know, if you had to know, what everyone around you was thinking and feeling. No wonder the novella opens with Latimer eagerly awaiting his death.

So what does all this get me, besides a chance to ramble on about some of my favorite bits of George Eliot? I think she can resolve for us what litlove called “the curse of the sympathetic character.” Perhaps we can speak, instead, of “the sympathetic reader.” I do want to sympathize with at least some of the characters when I’m reading a book; I want to feel with and for them, to care about what happens to them. But this doesn’t have to mean that writers create characters who are nice enough, middle of the road enough, inoffensive enough, to be “sympathetic.” It means, instead, that they have to find ways to help readers sympathize with whatever characters they create–recognizing that there are limits to our sympathy, and that sometimes the effort will fail.

In some ways authors in genres like romance or chick-lit have it much harder than Eliot when it comes to creating sympathy. The deep third-person or first-person narration employed in these genres doesn’t allow for a compassionate omniscient narrator to educate and direct a reader’s sympathy. Somehow, there has to be space for that compassion even when all we have is the character’s own thoughts. I admire writers who work to create sympathy for “difficult” characters in the reader rather than falling back on safely sympathetic characters. I want to find a variety of characters in my genre reading. For my part, I pledge to do my best to be a sympathetic reader, to feel with and for characters even when we lack “a conformity of feelings . . . or temperament.” Inevitably, sometimes, both reader and writer will fail. But I think it’s a risk worth taking. I think it’s a risk we have to take sometimes, to push boundaries, to move past the formulaic, safe and familiar, to make the genre great.

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17 Responses to The Unsympathetic Character, Revisited

  1. Ruthie says:

    Great post, Liz. I’m always up for a little geeking out about Eliot.

    You asked me the other day if romance has to be escapist in order to be . . . well, I’m not sure. In order to be romance, perhaps. Or in order to be good. I’m still thinking about where I come down on that question, but my gut says “yes.” That genre romance (as opposed to, say, literary fiction with romance in it, or that nebulous “novel with romantic elements) is somehow fundamentally an escapist category of fiction.

    So I would pose this question: If the reader has to do “work” — in this case the work of endeavoring to be compassionate/sympathetic with characters who may not seem fully deserving — is it still possible to “escape” in the story? Does this kind of literary tussling with a text somehow mess with the fundamental escapism of romance?

    I ask because I’ve encountered a few romances recently that asked me to engage in just this way — to find sympathy for an unsympathetic heroine and hero — and I found it challenging. I agree with you that it’s a risk we have to take to push boundaries and make the genre, if not better, than richer, more textured. But sometimes it sets my intellect and my emotions at odds. When I pick up a romance novel, I often don’t want to have to do work as a reader. I expect to work hard when I read lit fic. In romance — as much as I celebrate the idea of pushing the boundaries and enriching the genre, and believe me, I DO — I will often DNF rather than make the effort.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There’s so much to think about packed into this comment.

      I wonder about the “escapism” question a lot. I do think there is value to literature (and other art forms) that don’t make us work, that allow us to relax into them. And I also think it’s not easy to write a book that doesn’t feel like “work” to a reader–for instance, I find it anything but escapist to read something with writing errors or poor sentence construction. I’m not sure sympathizing with difficult characters has to be work; if the writer has done a lot of work at inviting that sympathy, it might be easy and natural to give it. But it can be quite painful (as a lot of academics feel about their sympathy for Casaubon) and maybe that takes away the feeling of “escape.”

      I sometimes wonder why romance, as opposed to mystery or fantasy, say, is not seen as having books that “transcend” the genre or “literary” writers who are playing with genre elements. Where is romance’s Michael Chabon or Margaret Atwood? I think it’s partly because love stories with happy endings are a feature of many canonical novels, so that isn’t identified as a “genre” element when it appears in literary fiction now. But I also wonder if the emphasis on “heroic” characters that comes from the genres roots in chivalric romance (I’d argue) is part of the problem. Contemporary literary fiction–unlike high culture literary forms of the past–does not value heroism, by and large. Quite the contrary. It’s funny that something once seen as a mark of high art is now seen as a mark of low art. Heroes in epic or chivalric Romance or tragedy were certainly flawed, but also noble and larger than life. I think genre is where we see those characters today, and I don’t know that it’s a feature I’d want to give up.

      I think the question of whether a book that’s too painfully realistic, or a book with not just flawed but maybe really evil/wrong/bad characters, like this one that generated so much discussion at Dear Author, can still be romance get to the heart of how we understand and define the genre. I’m not sure anyone agrees on where to draw the lines, or whether they can be sharply delineated, but it’s a really interesting conversation.

      • Ruthie says:

        I’ve been following that discussion on DA / Twitter with some interest, and I’ve got a post written for Wonkomance on Thursday which tackles the realism/romance question from another angle. Today I’ve been reading Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel, which is a fascinating case study in sympathetic non-heroic romance. (So far, anyway. I’m only at 43%.)

    • Erin Satie says:

      I wonder if this could be looked at from a different direction. Because while it’s true that romance novels are full of sympathetic, be-haloed characters, those characters often do stupid, mean, or unlikable things. In fact, I’d have to think for a while to come up with a romance where the hero and heroine are moderate and ethical in their behavior from beginning to end.

      When you look at it that way – from action back to character, rather than from character to action – it could be argued that romances overcompensate in the sympathizing department. Characters we’d hate if judged by their deeds are presented with thorough backstories, past trauma, deep POV that helps us understand their decisions. The characters are so thoroughly explained, we are so thoroughly assured of their essential goodness, that when they behave atrociously we forgive them without difficulty or reflection.

      The difference might be that in romances we expect flawed characters to change for the better. And, actually, this often ruins romances for me – the characters I fall in love with change so much once they are redeemed that I don’t recognize them anymore.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        These are really interesting points. I also think there is behavior that is not seen as “bad” because the reader knows the person doing it is the hero (or less often the heroine). So forced seduction, tracking heroine by her cellphone, telling her what to wear, attacking other guys who show interest in her, whatever, is read not as creepy or abusive but as sympathetic or at least excusable because it is a sign of the love the character hasn’t yet recognized. That’s something I see as troubling even though I have sometimes done it myself. I think that is part of what Robin means when she talks about the reader consenting to things.

  2. Ruthie says:

    Hmm, and maybe I should modify so say that my reticence only comes into play when a character moves into the zone of “deeply unsympathetic.” I’m a fairly tolerant reader (and, I hope, writer). I don’t ask for perfection from my romance characters.

  3. Ros says:

    Oh, this is brilliant.

    “There are people who like Mary Crawford, hate Fanny Price, and can’t stand Middlemarch.”
    I was genuinely shocked the first time I came across Mary Crawford fans. I thought they were being sarcastic or teasing me. And then I realised they really meant it. So yes, reader response is crucial.

    But also, authorial skill. I get frustrated by people who decide not to read a book on the basis that a character does X or Y and ‘I could never like/sympathise with/forgive someone for that. Because actually, we could all do X or Y, given the circumstances. And it’s up to the author to help us see why those characters deserve our sympathy, even when they behave in ways we abhor.

    I am about to do a review post on Kate Hewitt’s last three M&B’s because all three of them push the genre boundaries in various ways. She has a female adulteress and a hero who isn’t just a ‘bad boy’ but is an actual criminal. And yet I loved them and wanted them to be happy, and felt so much sympathy for them.

    I adore Dorothea Brooke. Mr Casaubon, however, has been the spectre over my academic work for years. I am sure there must be a book in German which has already disproved my thesis…

  4. I just read a book that had a good example of a sympathetic, yet unlikable character. A cocky kid, used to be the star, mistreats his girlfriend, and when his best friend becomes successful in the wake of his failure, he gets extremely jealous and ends up losing it. The hero, on the other hand, was adorable, perfect, and both likable and sympathetic. However, I kept thinking that the book would have been so much better with the “villain” as main character.

    Molly O’Keefe wrote another unlikable but sympathetic heroine, and then turned her into a likable character. I admit that, just like Ros complains, I wasn’t sure about reading her book because I couldn’t stand her in her sequel-bait book. But ultimately I felt like I didn’t have to like her in order to enjoy the book. And I think that if Romance readers would focus more on interesting instead of likable, the genre would be richer. But the unlikable heroine is very hard to sell in the genre. We should remember that it’s possible to feel sympathy for someone we don’t like. It would help us step out of our comfort zone and read a broader variety of stories.

    Great post!

  5. Love both Colwin and Eliot, love that you included them in this fascinating discussion. I’ve wondered about this “sympathetic character” business frequently. With genre fiction, I often find the characters unsympathetic *because* they lack nuance–even the ones that are meant to be sympathetic. Of course, with genre there’s an expectation for the reader to have a quick immersion in the story. But unlike with Eliot, there’s not often a recognizable touching on the subtle things that are really part of the human experience– the frailties and blindnesses that make life puzzling, frustrating, complex. For example, in MIddlemarch, even Casaubon (Dorothea’s husband) is not a villain, though he’s very unlikable–we see his fear and the way he’s kept himself from being involved in life and how it’s narrowed his existence. And so we have a little compassion for him. And don’t we all get along better when we have compassion for the burdens people carry?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wonder if nuance makes it harder for readers (some readers? many readers?) to immerse themselves–and that relates to Ruthie’s “escapist” point above. I like nuance, myself, but I don’t know that I’m the average reader, having spent so much time immersed in Victorian doorstoppers.

  6. Cecilia says:

    Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

    I’ve re-read Middlemarch many many times in the years since I first encountered it in college, and there was a span of about five re-reads where for me, the most compelling thread in the book was the story of the banker Mr. Bulstrode. Sanctimonious, ungenerous, hypocritical, with a big fat injurious-to-others moral failing in his past, but boy did I feel for that guy when it all started crumbling in on him.

    As a reader (also as a writer), I sympathize with human frailty; I find it fascinating; and I do get frustrated that I don’t encounter more of it in the romance genre. Even this new breed of super-alpha anti-hero still seems to win at everything he does. It provides me no outlet for my readerly sympathy, and dammit, I want to exercise my readerly sympathy!

    That quote from Adam Bede is just brilliant. Why shouldn’t romance, too, help us to see and understand the not-ostensibly-remarkable people among whom our lives are passed, instead of promoting the idea that the only people worthy of having their stories told are the dukes and billionaire sheikhs?*

    *I’m asking this as a reader. I don’t pretend to have gotten anywhere near achieving it as a writer.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought about Bulstrode a lot as I was writing this. What an awful, awful man, yet how I felt for him. I have a much harder time feeling sympathetic with real-life sanctimonious hypocrites, though.

      I also thought of characters like Highsmith’s Ripley or Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter. I haven’t actually read those books, but they made a lot of readers sympathize with killers.

      Your point about winning is a great one. I wonder if readers tend to want romance characters to be sympathetic/heroic because they do always win, at pretty much everything? We want to believe they deserve it all.

      If they didn’t win it ALL (marriage but no megabucks or no magic baby or no reconciliation with family or whatever) or their HEA didn’t have to be fairytale love no fights hot sex forevermore, maybe it would be easier to let them be imperfect and flawed right to the end, and to root for them anyway.

      We need more alpha billionaires with Rochester endings. Bring them down more than emotionally! Blind and maim them and burn their penthouses down before they get love! (I’m kidding. Sort of. But those characters are super dull to me.)

  7. I’ve been enjoying your exploration of the unsympathetic character. As a reader I have never felt the need to like the characters I read about (as per one of my previous posts). Understanding a character’s motivations and the reasons for their behaviour is more important to me as a reader than liking the character. And even this concept of a “flawed hero/ine” doesn’t sit right with me for who (both fictional and in reality) is without flaws. The author that wrote the “nice, likable, idealized” character may have written a character that I have perceived as annoying, simpering and patronisingly sweet – flawed in their saccharine selves. I also wonder whether this is more of an issue in fiction that is character driven such as literary and romance fiction than plot driven such as thrillers and horror.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am going to say something heretical: I am not sure I believe romance is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Or at least, I wonder whether a structure that signals “romance” and the drive of a plot towards an HEA is part of what leads readers to accept as “romantic” behavior they say they would run screaming from in real life. That’s different from being sympathetic with a flawed character. So, I guess, kind of off topic. Maybe what I mean is that there can be a problem with sympathizing, too, when it shades over into admiring, say, abusive/stalkery hero behavior.

      That’s not to say that I have not encountered many wonderful characters in romance fiction. I have. As in mysteries.

      I agree that overly bland, nice, or perfect characters are often not sympathetic. And realistically, there’s only so much a writer can do to evoke sympathy. As always, the reader brings something to the equation too.

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  9. jmcbks says:

    A little bit of an afterthought: I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Friday night. Despite finding NONE of the characters sympathetic, I stayed in my seat. If I had been reading, I would have tossed the book. If I had been at home watching TV, I would have changed the channel or turned the TV off entirely. Yet I kept watching as George & Martha belittled and abused each other and their guests, both very unsympathetic characters. Perhaps format/presentation is more important to me than I thought?

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