KJ Howe: Does your protagonist have to be likeable? Author Lynne Reeves doesn’t think so. In fact, she feels it can be quite compelling to have a challenging character at the helm. Read on to discover why…
Dark Emotions and Character Likability
By Lynne Reeves
No one’s ever accused me of writing likable characters. The protagonists of my four novels have been called, “divinely flawed; troubled; utterly deceptive.” They’ve also been called, “carefully crafted” and “wonderfully complex.”
I’m also a family counselor, and it’s become a badge of honor to have readers talk about my characters using dramatic language of any kind. I’m not a fan of reducing characters to either likable or unlikable. To me, debating likability in fiction reveals our discomfort as a society with women, real or otherwise, who grapple with intense or counter cultural emotions. For as far as we’ve come through waves of feminism, so much of our experience remains undiscussable.
Whether the novel’s main female character cheated on her partner, seduced a teenage boy, or used her privilege to take drugs and sleep all day, complex fictional women have been known to drive living, breathing people to rant about how hard it is to read them. Yet no one is suggesting that to inhabit the fictional world of characters’ actions deemed abysmally negative, perhaps even criminal—or to write about them—is to condone their behavior. I’ll posit that some of these made-up women get under our skin because we know someone who grapples with urges like theirs, or maybe in our most private moments we do.
It’s our collective avoidance and denial of the dark emotions that drew me to write domestic suspense about the deepest mysteries of family life—why we often hide our private struggles from the people we love most. In fact, exploring characters’ fear, grief, and despair has a prominent place on the page in the psychological thriller genre. These difficult emotions are integral to narrative drive, essential to character development; it is from these complex feelings that compelling motivations are drawn. The mystery, suspense, crime fiction genres allow us to go dark. To contemplate what we might do if faced with unimaginable circumstances.
With my new novel, The Dangers of an Ordinary Night I wanted to consider the impact of addiction and betrayal on relationships. As a counselor working with families, I see the ripple effects of mental illness on partners and children every day. I wanted to explore this reality through a fictional lens in hopes that the characters’ struggles would resonate with what readers may be going through in their own lives. If readers are uncomfortable entertaining the questions—Is it ever justified for a woman to sever ties with someone who struggles with the disease of addiction; Are mothers at fault if they miss the signs that their teenagers are emotionally in trouble; Are there times when keeping a family secret does more good than harm—I’m okay with that.
For however long it takes to read the novel, and even longer should my characters’ stories stay with you, it’s my intention for readers to sit with the discomfort Nell, Cyn, and Kiera feel in order to empathize with them, and women like them.
When we hold space for the difficult people presented to us in novels, and we ponder the questions these characters raise for us, which cannot be answered simply or quickly or tritely, only then can we truly contemplate experiences dissimilar to our own. If we abandon the issue of likability, and instead fully imagine other peoples’ quandaries, however unappealing their behavior may be, we have the opportunity to reach new levels of knowledge, awareness, and perspective. Think of reading fiction as an act of empathy, letting stories be the powerful vehicle they are for emotional growth in ourselves and radical acceptance of others.
Lynne Reeves Griffin is an internationally recognized family counselor, speaker, and writer. Writing as Lynne Reeves her novel of domestic suspense, The Dangers of an Ordinary Night, is forthcoming in November. To learn about her work, visit LynneGriffin.com, or follow her twitter @Lynne_Griffin and instagram @LynneReevesGriffin.