Thursday, 18 August 2011

Do We Have To Like Characters?

I've just finished reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes.  It's about a collection of netsuke - Japanese carvings - that the author inherited, and he uses the story of the collection to trace his family's history over the past two centuries.  It is a beguiling read and I enjoyed it, especially the tactile descriptions of objects and the places evoked such as Belle Epoque Paris and inter-war Vienna, but all the while I had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, of unease.

It took time to put my finger on it, but I worked out that the feeling started when I realised that the collection - 264 netsuke in all - hadn't been lovingly assembled by a connoisseur but bought as a job lot by a staggeringly rich bloke as part of a massive accumulation of stuff.  de Waal writes beautifully, but it can't be denied that this is essentially the story of some very rich people buying a lot of expensive things. The family come across as stifled by the sheer quantity of their possessions, brains and imaginations stunted by all this wealth.  

Being fabulously wealthy doesn't, in itself, make for interesting characters, and doing nothing much with that wealth beyond spending it on themselves doesn't make for appealing people.  I once gave feedback on someone's novel which started with the main character being wealthy, but worrying about paying what would have been a relatively small amount to them.  It wasn't attractive, and I recommended either that the character wasn't so well off - or that the amount to be paid would have ruined them.  

We can't all be heroic or live dramatic lives.  This is a memoir and these people were real.  I tussle in my head whether it's fair to judge them for being, essentially, average?  For example, the great grandfather who is bored going into work everyday and would rather be doing something else, but continues through duty to the family.  Or his wife, married very young, who is only interested in dresses and socialising.  The daughter, desperate to get away from her family and escape via education.  

I'm sure most of us can recognise people in similar situations, which should give them an appeal, but there is still that nagging sense of 'So what? Why should I care?' 

As a reader I may tussle with that in a memoir, but as a novelist I can't allow my readers to feel like that about my characters.  So, given that we can understand their situations, what is it that makes me keep the family at arms length?  I think it's the lack of balance.  The family is wealthy, but they do nothing but the obvious with the money ie spend it.  There are no interesting projects to help others, no libraries founded, no good works done.  

Does it matter?  Yes, even though it is non-fiction.  For fiction, the balance would be essential. The rich man would have secret heartache, or perhaps an accident would reverse his fortunes.  The socialite would discover the kind of lives lived by most people most of the time and learn compassion and generosity.  The bored man would cast off his family duty and live his own life. 
The most appealing family members in The Hare with Amber Eyes were, for me, the ones who got away, who rejected the lives they'd been born into.  

'Like' is such a general word, it's hard to pin down what we mean by it. Essentially, would we have been happy to spend time in these real life characters' company?  For me the answer would have to be, 'they're all right, I suppose, but dull.'  And that's not great for any book, no matter how wonderful the writing.


JO said...

I agree with you about The Hare with the Amber Eyes - up to a point. The family were 'of their time and culture' - slightly distant, and with a understanding of power and money that isn't instantly likeable. As a story - it was Anna, the servant in Germany, who shone through. But the rest of them were doing what they did in their culture. It said as much about the times as it does about the people.

Alison Morton said...

I thought I was the only one to think like this about the Hare.

The descriptions were sumptuous and the book was a particularly fascinating insight into the Belle Epoque. But the best characters for me were Anna, the maidservant who had survived Vienna through the Second World War and Elizabeth, the escaping daughter who saved the bacon of many family members by her practical and indefatigable actions. She also ended up in Tunbridge Wells, where I grew up!

Inevitably, we look at things today through more egalitarian, 21st century eyes. I have no problem with characters (real or imagined) being rich and influential, but I object to them not being responsible and not using that wealth positively. Charles drove me bonkers, but I was nevertheless fascinated by his selfishness and self-indulgence.

A reading friend of mine whose taste I admire recommended it. As a document of the time I'm glad I read it. But I read it more as a duty to her than from choice.

Now, where's that derring-do space opera with sassy characters I put down?

carola said...

Yes I have to agree. Recently my novel was critiqued and a problem with characterisation I never saw was that the heroine, aristocratic faced with the aftermath of war was able to pasy for everything with jewels. Now really she should lose everything in destitute novel land-so, well, she will in the edit. More hardship, more pain, more to regain.

carola said...

Yes I have to agree. I did this with my heroine, allowed her in the aftermath of war to pay for stuff, no pain, nothing to regain! She will in the edits lose everything.

Sarah Duncan said...

Yes, of their time and culture and I'd have prob done exactly the same had I been born to the same position. But does it make me want to read about them avidly? Nope.

Anna is a great character - but she hardly appears at all so why do we like her? Because she is loyal and enterprising and brave and honest. And overlooked by the family! Elizabeth was my second favourite - succeeding by her intellect and drive, resourcefully rescuing her family etc. And I liked Iggy, who also got away.

Carola, you're absolutely right to make it harder for your heroine. Make 'em suffer!

Liz Harris said...

An interesting blog, Sarah. Plenty to think about, also from the readers' comments. Thank you.

Liz X

Eryl said...

This is so fascinating: I loved The Hare with Amber Eyes. Yes, I agree that some of the characters were a bit dull, but I always felt that as members of a persecuted minority they were desperately trying to buy their way to acceptance, out of the ghetto. The fact that the Netsuke were bought as a job lot only increased my sympathy: this man doesn't have a bleeding clue, I thought, but he's desperate to look like he does. All the way through I saw them as vulnerable, and in pain, so I rooted for them.

That said, Anna was my favourite too. I cried when I read the bit about her secreting the netsuke in her mattress, and I do like a story that makes me cry.

Sarah Duncan said...

Eryl - love your take on it. That hadn't occurred to me, but I can see exactly what you mean. Just shows how individual personalities read things in different ways.