I send various comments…

I send various comments to my students; some of them are specific, in response to particulars in their work. Some are more general, and might be of general writerly interest. An edited version of some of what I've sent out this morning:

One of the ongoing difficulties for fiction writers lies in getting readers to sympathize with dislikable characters. Hemingway may be helpful to consider here. Hemingway focuses on the pressures of social expectations of masculinity on men -- the ways in which it breaks them. The men in his novels are self-centered and sometimes brutal, sexist and obnoxious, yet in the best of the books, we still empathize with them. We care.

I think it's useful to consider that one of the ways to make such men sympathetic, even while they're being jerks and assholes, is to make clear how breakable they are. They may seem strong, but it's a brittle strength. They're being so obnoxious because of their desperate need to prove their manhood, or establish themselves as adults, etc. and so on -- Hemingway's protagonists, as a result, are tremendously fragile. Even while the reader resents them, dislikes them, they can't help wanting them to survive, to make it through. Sometimes these characters survive, sometimes they don't, but in either case, as a writer, you've succeeded if you can make your reader care about the outcome. These characters are sympathetic for their fervent, heart-breaking attempts to maintain wholeness in the face of impending, ongoing, disintegration.

This pattern can certainly hold true for women as well, but I wonder whether we see it more with men, who are perhaps more socially-pressured into a particularly rigid mode. Although perhaps that's also a historical construct, one which is less true today?

2 thoughts on “I send various comments…”

  1. *I* can help wanting them to survive. Can help it very easily, in fact.

    I’m not saying this to be snotty. I’m saying it to point out that no matter how well you do the job of getting readers to sympathize with unsympathetic characters, no technique will work for every reader.

  2. Okay, ‘can’t help’ might have been overstating it a bit. But you follow the general point…

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