The Non-Feel Good Novel

One of my favorite novelists is Herman Koch because he makes me consistently uncomfortable. The first book I read from Koch was The Dinner. The novel’s POV protagonist, Paul Lohman, starts off as a pretty likable guy. He has some issues, a few stray thoughts that would give most people pause, but doesn’t everyone? Who hasn’t thought something that they would never say aloud? Who hasn’t laughed at a friend’s off-color joke?   As the story goes on, however, it becomes clear that Paul’s naughty thoughts are much more than one-offs. By the book’s end, I felt a bit guilty that I had liked Paul at the start. That guilt made the story stick with me even though the ending wasn’t one to revel in and the characters weren’t people whom I would ever cheer for in real life. I like my good characters with a healthy dose of bad. To me, that makes them complicated, and complexity makes people human. I’m not alone. How could Breaking Bad have been so successful if plenty of people weren’t willing to root for Walter White? Still, not everyone feels this way. When I wrote The Widower’s Wife, some readers didn’t like the fact that my main character, Ana, contemplates a crime when she feels her back is against the wall and isn’t consistently honest. They couldn’t identify with her choices. Understandable. Though I wasn’t asking readers to sympathize with her as much as empathize. If they had Ana’s back story and then were put in her difficult circumstances, might they make a similar choice? At the end of the day, my test for characters–those I read and those I write–is believability, not likability. Given their individual histories, do their actions follow? Whether or not they would be my friend is another matter.  What do you think? Should writers err on the side of likability? Should protagonists make you uncomfortable?     

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