True to my policy of always bringing Jane Austen into any post if I can, our Jane once suggested, when writing Emma, that she was creating a heroine whom no one would like except herself. Oddly, although many readers might find Emma’s snobbery rather ridiculous, they don’t mind her at all. The Austen heroine that everyone finds very difficult to like is Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, the unspeakably virtuous girl for whom Jane Austen had a special affection – although I wish she hadn’t referred to her as “my Fanny.”
The question is, does the protagonist in a novel have to be likeable? I want to be able to inhabit my main characters and understand why they think, say, do what they do, even if they are not people I would like to spend an evening with. I need to empathise without necessarily sympathising. It isn’t their virtues, including likeability, that gives the story meat, but their vices, or at least their weaknesses.
Nelly Skeel, Victorian housekeeper in my book Long Shadows, is not at all charming and does unforgiveable things, but I was really writing about the silent desperation that drove her to it.
Some readers of A Time For Silence have mentioned enjoying Gwen’s story, set in the past, but finding the modern day Sarah too silly. But Sarah’s silliness is an intrinsic part of the story. It emphasises the near impossibility of her ever being able to understand the reality and the pressures of her Grandmother’s life. Like the man said, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” (The man being L P Hartley, by the way)
In Shadows, people find Kate cold. That’s because she is. She has made herself cold and her resulting isolation is a theme of the book.
In my first Science Fiction book, Inside Out, I imagine most readers find all the characters fairly objectionable to start with, but will have understood them by the end.
Could I write a book in which the lead character is altogether perfect? Almost certainly not, because everyone’s idea of perfection is different, and anyway they wouldn’t be real. Male Victorian novelists liked to create a clear division between the goodies and the baddies. Their heroes were strong, valiant, patriotic, honourable, courageous… yeah, yeah. (Ivanhoe – yawn.) And they had a very clear idea of female perfection: the submissive Angel at the hearth. Their heroines needed to be totally passive and in need of rescue. Lorna Doone comes to mind. But even when Victorian men created such angels, was it really what readers wanted? In Vanity Fair, Amelia Sedley is the sweetest thing, pretty, gentle, loving and weak, and she makes most readers want to vomit. It’s the amoral, selfish and utterly unscrupulous Becky Sharpe who wins, hands down, in capturing interest.
Female Victorian authors of course were quite capable of creating leading characters, male and female, with far more flaws than perfections, perhaps because they understood that flaws are what make characters real. Or maybe surreal, in the case of Wuthering Heights. Not that all virtues are boring. If there is one virtue I like all my female protagonists to have, it’s strength (not necessarily physical) and if there’s one virtue I need in a male protagonist, it’s a sense of humour. Beyond that, just pile on the vices.