The harm that loving characters too much can do

It's a tricky line for a writer to tread. How many of us have had novels rejected by publishers, who tell us that they "just didn't fall in love with" our characters? How many of us have had novels accepted because publishers tell us that they "just fell in love with" our characters?

How to create a "loveable enough" character can be a cynical exercise and you can see it in some contemporary novels - the overloading of vulnerability (make your narrator an orphaned kitten!), the piling-up of tragic events, the sentimentality ratio off the scale.

But it's what we want, as readers. Or at least, the current fuss about Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman points that way. I have a confession to make - I've still not read To Kill a Mockingbird. I somehow missed the school-imposed years when it became practically a set text, and I've missed subsequent opportunities since.

That doesn't mean I don't hold similar characters close to my bosom: the first 'fictional' character I really fell in love with was The Girl, or the Second Mrs de Winter, in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. I read it when I was about 13, and those first few chapters about the shy and unsure who feels she's doing everything wrong fitted exactly with my perception of myself at that age. I even remember feeling quite annoyed when another girl in my class at school said it was her favourite novel, and The Girl was her favourite character - you can't have her, I wanted to say, she's mine!

When we love, we possess, and it's clear from the furore about Finch that we feel we 'own' him, too. There's an argument to be made that Finch isn't so much a character as an ideal and it's the destruction of that ideal we object to so much in Go Set a Watchman (similarly, we 'love Jane Eyre, but also see her as an ideal - we are meant to cheer when she refuses Rochester's request to be his mistress. How would we feel if an previously undiscovered manuscript of that novel showed a Jane Eyre capitulating to Rochester's request?)

But even with an ideal, it's an expression of love that we have for him/her/it. And that expression of love contains a difficult message for authors. How dare, we seem to be saying, Harper Lee take Finch and make him detestable? How dare she do that to 'our' hero?

But perhaps Go Set a Watchman has given us a useful reminder that characters are not 'ours' to own; that they belong to the author, who has the right to do whatever they want with them. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle, for example: he killed off Sherlock Holmes only to be forced by readers who adored him to bring him back. Conan Doyle felt tethered to a character he wanted to see the back of (actors playing the character have sometimes felt like that too, when they become too popular).

This is where 'love' hampers creativity. We need to be free, as writers, to do what we want with the characters we have created. Recently, the author Claire Messud was questioned about creating an 'unlikeable' character in her novel, The Woman Upstairs. She railed against the suggestion that in order to appreciate a work, we have to 'like' the protagonists. What she was protesting against was the forcing into a creative hole that such a liking entails.

I'm writing at the moment about a Victorian woman accused of murder. If she was guilty, how do I make her 'lovable'? And should I even try? Is that what I should be doing? I don't think so: I want to get at some kind of psychological truth about her, not make her some kind of defenceless kitten. Can I make her sympathetic, like The Girl in Rebecca? I can try - if it feels appropriate. But 'loveable'? Maybe that's just a step too far...


  1. The number one rule of writing a good character for a story is that the character be believable. If someone is perfect, that's not believable because real people have flaws. As readers we naturally expect the characters to overcome the flaws by the end, but sometimes they take a darker path. Look at Michael Corleone, for example.

  2. Great post and an issue that I've had to consider in relation to the protagonist in my novel. While she's not accused of murder, she'll not appeal to every reader as she acts immorally on several occasions but I agree with Greta's previous comment that I hope that means she's more believable and more interesting. As a writer, I'm not aiming for the reader to like my main character but to understand them. I wonder if the pressure to 'like' things on Facebook has any influence?


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