Tag Archives: Alissa Nutting

Unlikeable Characters; What’s Not To Like?

Now fret not, this is not another discussion on book blagging or any of that shebang (I am officially past all that; well I am now I made that small joke) and in a much lovelier place. Anyway, digression aside, what I want to discuss with you all is the tricky subject of the unlikeable character as they seem to divide reader’s opinions quite a lot.

I am not talking your average villain like the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, or psychopathic murder in a crime novel/ poisonous dwarf in a fantasy etc. I am talking about narrators or protagonists who you simply don’t like for the despicable things they do, or think or simply the dark side of society they show. Examples could be the lead characters in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the lead character in Alissa Nutting’s Tampa or pretty much all the characters in Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. I actually recently discussed unlikeable characters with Christos, as Barracuda’s protagonist Danny often isn’t the most likeable of folk, in the latest episode of You Wrote The Book and how people can be put off a book by them, which has always mystified me and seemed to mystify Christos.

Firstly how can someone write off a novel, play or short story because of an unlikeable character? You couldn’t watch King Lear and afterwards come out and say ‘ugh, that was awful, Lear is so unlikeable’. I have stolen this from Christos, I wouldn’t watch a Shakespeare play but that is a whole other can of worms.  I just think to write off a book because of a bad or unlikeable character over bad or unlikeable writing seems potty to me.

I personally love an unlikeable character, in fact probably more than I love a villain be they panto or psychopathic. I think it is the fact that they can safely take me to the darker side of life, or expose an ugly side of society and really get me thinking about it and the subject the character brings to the fore as we need to look at the light and dark in life don’t we? They can also look at controversial subjects, one of the reasons Tampa (mentioned above) is going to be one of the books I read in the not too distant future – and the lead character in that is a teacher who seduces her pupils. Dark and uncomfortable, but safely stored on a page I can pop down if I feel the need. This is the common complaint; that it can get too much, too dark or too depressing. Yet the great thing with a character in a book is that you can put them to one side – not so someone truly unlikeable in your life.

So I ask you all, what is there not to like about unlikeable characters in fiction? I would love your thoughts if you love them or if indeed you loathe them…

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Confronting vs. Comforting Fiction

I have always been puzzled when I have heard someone say the words ‘oh no, I couldn’t read that, it sounds just too awful’. This has happened on various occasions but most recently when I have been telling people about Meike Ziervogel’s Magda, which I told you about on the blog yesterday. Despite me having raved about it to people’s faces/over the phone/via email the idea that they would be reading about a woman, who was not only part of the Nazi Party but who also killed her own children, is just abhorrent. Initially it makes me cross (no, not because they are questioning my judgement of a book, though now you mention it…) because it seems so closed minded, then it makes me feel a bit sad because without reading some books, not all, that challenge and confront us how do we learn. Especially in the safety that fiction provides.

Confronting Books

A selection of books I own deemed ‘too confronting’. Or are they?

Of course it is all dependent on why we read I suppose. Some people just want to escape life with a book and I completely understand the joy a comfort read can bring. Not just in hard times though that is when they can work their magic the most, if I am ever feeling down or things are a bit much then nothing works its charm like Agatha Raisin will, just in the day to day and that is how it should be. Reading should be fun and escapist. Yet surely sometimes we need to mix things up a bit don’t we?

I used to be in a book group with some colleagues of an old workplace many moons ago and we had one member who, lovely as they were, would frustrate me endlessly. The amount of books we couldn’t read because they would be offended was incredible. No murder, no war, no third world poverty, no torture, no child abuse/abduction, definitely no Nazi’s (mention of the holocaust would cause panic), no gratuitous violence, no hardcore sex… the list went on. Note:- this is not a list of things I go out of my way to look for in books. It didn’t leave much we could read. I ended up leaving after having read The Other Boleyn Girl this person announced they couldn’t read it because incest was suggested so they had to stop.

This I understand was an extreme case, though it thrilled me that it made my aversion to horses and boats in books seem minor. Even so I remember at the time thinking ‘how on earth do you watch the news?’ Some of the best books I have read have been ones that have completely taken me out of my comfort zone and confronted and challenged me. They are the books which have made my view on the world now, Magda is one and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is another, the latter about the conflict in Chechnya which horrified me with its unflinching descriptions of what has been going on in such recent history, yet was an incredibly moving and thought provoking piece of work. Both will be in my books of the year.

Yesterday I mentioned how as I started to understand Magda through Meike’s telling of her story I started to feel slightly uncomfortable that people might think I was a Nazi sympathiser, this obviously couldn’t be further from the truth. It was something that Meike herself said worried her before the book came out, especially when she wrote about her grandfathers involvement in the Nazi’s, yet to deal with its past she felt there needed to be a book like that as it is still something that has to be dealt with rather than brushed under the carpet.

I love a good crime novel especially with a really evil psychopath at its heart, particularly the ones with all the autopsies no pun intended. I won’t lie to you all, I find it grimly fascinating. Some people can’t read crime though. Unlike me they don’t like being scared, chilled and thrilled in the comfort of their own home on the sofa with a nice cup/glass of something. I do but this doesn’t mean I want to go off on a killing spree next weekend, or indeed perform an autopsy ever in my life for that matter. Just as, should I read Lolita, Tampa etc, it doesn’t mean I want to sleep with underage youths – nor does the author. I don’t hunt them down, well not the latter, I do a good crime novel though. I want to be horrified or challenged in a fictional safety net, like jumping on a rollercoaster only with optional biscuits and less g-force. Fiction, with its slight distance, can make characters come alive we don’t want to get in the minds of , be they complete inventions or fictionalisations of real people, but might learn something by understanding. At least that is how I see it.

What about you lovely lot? Do you prefer a comforting read or a confronting one? Do you worry what people will think of you if you read a book on a certain subject? Do you only read comfort reading or confronting reading and if so why? Do you think fiction is a safe place to be confronted by the controversial? Are there any subjects that should be taboo?

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