Who Do I Root For?
"But who am I supposed to root for?"
It happens almost every time. You try to write a good book. You dig in, you try to be honest, you try to be fair, you try to imbue your characters with a sense of depth and complexity, you try to show them in all their humanity with their shameful flaws and their well-battered virtues intact, you try to show how everyone has his or reasons—even the truly awful people—without quite letting them off the hook.
And then, inevitably, somebody—sometimes a critic, sometimes a cranky reader with access to the Internet—lets out the familiar battle cry:
"But who am I supposed to root for in this book? There aren't nice people in it."
Of course, restraint is best. There's not a damn thing wrong with nice. Not one fucking thing. I try to teach my kids to be nice. I try to be nice to my wife—though she might have something to say about that. I don't kick dogs or slash tires, if I can help it. But I don't ask my characters to behave—and you shouldn't either.
Not long ago, a friend of mine published a list of the 100 most memorable film characters of all-time. Their ranks included Don Corleone, Bonnie Parker, Norman Bates, Travis Bickle, Fred C. Dobbs (the greedy, paranoid gold prospector Humphrey Bogart plays in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Scarlett O'Hara, and Charles Foster Kane. Violent psychopaths, compulsive narcissists, and megalomaniacs. Not exactly a group you'd want to see hanging around the sidelines of your kid's soccer game. There's an even rougher crowd on the shelves where I keep some of the books that have meant the most to me: The anti-hero from Notes From Underground, Madame Bovary, Bandini from John Fante's Ask The Dust, Lily Bart from House of Mirth, the nameless protagonist of Hammett's Red Harvest, Richard Yates's seething suburbanites. Even Philip Marlowe, the knight errant of Raymond Chandler's novels, is more prone to violent rages and irrational moods than you'd like to see in an ideal house-guest.
Yet the voices still cry out: "Who are the good guys here? Why should I care about any of these people?"
The answer is: I try to treat my readers like grown-ups. Children want and need clearly delineated moral structure and clearly defined heroes and villains. Most sentient adults, though, have lived through enough bitter compromises and disappointment to know that line gets awfully thin in places, and sometimes even disappears. Yes, of course, there are times when people transcend their limitations and act selflessly, even courageously, but those moments are usually hard-earned and occasionally less clear-cut than we'd like them to be. And for whatever reason, that struggle to find the line, or at least to justify yourself and claim you're on the right side of it, is probably the thing I write about most often.
Exhibit A is the latest novel I have coming out, Slipping Into Darkness. The plot is set in motion by the mystery of how the DNA of a woman who's been dead twenty years winds up under the fingernails of a victim killed. But the main tension in the story, really the book's true reason for being, is in the sustained confrontation between its two main characters: Julian Vega, the young man locked up for two decades for a crime he may or may not have committed, and Francis X. Loughlin, the police detective who Julian says framed him for the first murder and ruined his life.
These are two very flawed characters, to put it mildly. Both have moments of great feeling and empathy, but each of them also acts thuggishly in places, brutally, sometimes destructively. Page by page, scene by scene, the suspense in the story comes not so much from the central murder mystery, but from the internal conflict within each of these guys, the moment-by-moment struggle to constrain their worst impulses and strive toward some tattered notion of decency.
"But who am I supposed to root for?"
Well, that kind of depends on how you look at it. You have to kind of feel for Julian. Here's a guy who got locked up when he was a seventeen-year-old Catholic schoolboy. He spends twenty years in the state prison system for a crime that he may not have committed and then he gets dumped out on the street, a boy in a man's body, with virtually no resources to find a decent job or form social connections. He's never even had a girlfriend.
But then again, maybe he did kill that woman, so the hell with him. Twenty years wasn't nearly long enough.
On the other hand, Francis the homicide detective has his sympathetic side. This is a man who's spent most of his life being a public servant, a police officer not only risking his life but dedicating himself to being an advocate for the dead, the representative making sure the victim isn't forgotten. He also happens to be going blind, because of a degenerative eye disease, but he's trying to be stoic about it and just keep doing his job until he can't do it anymore. You gotta love a guy like that, right? Unless what Julian says about him is true, that he did frame an innocent man.
"You're confusing me! Now I don't know what I'm supposed to think!"
Exactly. I'm trusting my readers to hang in there while the characters reveal themselves, layer by layer. I want you to get to know them the way you'd get to know somebody in real life. I want you to form first impressions and then later question them when the character steps out of line and does something heinous or unexpectedly admirable. I want you to see through their bullshit, give them when due, and forgive some—but maybe not all—of their misdeeds. In short, I want you to accept them as human.
Do you have to like them? Not necessarily. Likeability is a dangerous thing—especially in a creative enterprise. What I hold dearest, you may find hateful beyond words, and vice versa. One sleepy afternoon in a Connecticut bookstore, I found myself in a conversation with a clerk who was telling me how much he liked and identified with the hero of John Grisham's The Firm. "What do you like so much about him?" I asked, thinking it wouldn't hurt to pick up a few pointers from such a successful, beloved author.
He thought for a long time and then said, "Well. He has a dog."
(A dog? That's it? But I put a dog in my last book and it didn't sell like Grisham. What's up with that? Why didn't people like it? Was it just because he kept trying to hump everyone's leg?)
The whole thing is so subjective and personal that it's close to useless—at least for me—to try to figure out what makes a character loveable. All I can do is be honest and let the chips fall where they may. So if you don't want to take my guys home and make them hot chocolate, that's okay. As Ian McEwan said, happiness writes white; contented well-adjusted characters don't usually generate a lot of dramatic heat on their own.
All I ask is that you spend some time with my people. Sometimes they're amusing, sometimes they're unnerving, sometimes they're untrustworthy, sometimes they're a lot more earnest than you'd like them to be. And sometimes, reluctantly, you might even catch a glimpse of yourself in them.
So who are you supposed to root for?
That's what you have to read the whole book to find out.
© Peter Blauner