I’ve just finished reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. Interesting. Without giving too much away, Logan Mountstuart, as a child, is a bit of a pompous twat; as a young man, a terrible husband and father; and, at various times, he cuckolds his best friends. So, how come I finished the whole 400-odd pages? How can a writer create a hero who behaves badly, yet hold the reader’s sympathy?
To be clear I’m not talking about operatic villainy, or even the anti-hero who inverts the noble qualities of courage, care and selflessness. I just mean the sort of everyday unpleasantness: being bitter, two-faced, mean-spirited, jealous, humourless, indecisive, or petty. Qualities we might all be party to but would rather not be in the company of.
I declare an interest here. I’m writing a character who is a self-obsessed hypochondriac.
So, let’s have a look at what Mr Boyd does. As a child, Logan Mountstuart is a geek, an outsider who is very quickly set a challenge to get into the school first rugby team – obstacles! Despite being a rotten first father, he is loving and devoted in his second marriage – redemption! And the friend he cuckolds is shown to be far more cruel in his philandering – comparison!
There’s a sort of game going on here. A balancing act in which each negative is balanced by a subtle positive. Also, from early on, the hero is a successful writer. He has a skill. And we do love a skill.
Emily Mortimer says, of the TV series Doll and Em, ‘We were trying to tread a fine line between being monstrous at times, and losing the audience completely. We never wanted to do that, so in order to keep people engaged and following our story, and wanting us to make up and get back together and fall back in love with each other at the end, we had to keep the complexity of who we are alive. And not just be a bitch.’
A recent Empire article on Toy Story correctly identified Woody as ‘jealous, vengeful and proud,’ and Buzz as ‘deluded…cocky and stupid.’ And yet, that isn’t all they are – we root for them.
Along these lines, a friend suggested I use a character wheel, in which a negative characteristic in one segment could be balanced by a more positive one in the opposite segment. It’s almost a cliché of crime drama: the alcoholic who’s a brilliant detective. It seems a bit calculated, until you reflect on the people you are drawn to. I heard a lovely story the other day. About a besotted man who met his partner’s parents for the first time. The father took him aside and said, ‘You think she is perfect, but the only reason she is with you is because she has the same number of issues you do.’
What other ways do writers use to counterbalance their character’s negative qualities?
The Outsider. A friend of mine told me she went to her school reunion with some trepidation. She had always been something of an outsider. But by the end of the evening she’d found out that all her friends had thought they were outsiders. It’s part of the human condition. Ignatius P Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces lives a very small, solipsistic life. A snob/slob who loves hotdogs and looking down on others. But he is also an outsider, and perhaps we like him because of that. Imagine if he were instead the headmaster at a college.
Being Trapped or Oppressed. Similar to the outsider but with a greater sense of something institutional to fight against. Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair is notoriously amoral. And yet, she holds our sympathy because she is fighting her way up from nothing. She is merely doing what you have to do to make any headway against privilege and oppression. Think also, Winston Smith.
They Change. Apparently Jeremy Paxman reads A Christmas Carol every year. So do I. There is nothing like a well-told redemption story. You forgive Scrooge his cruelty or Silas Marner his miserliness for their transformation by the end.
They’re Funny. Ricky Gervais has said that David Brent is not a bad man, he has just mistaken popularity for respect. We laugh at the weakness without having to acknowledge that it reflects something in ourselves. See also Charles Pooter, Basil Fawlty, and Captain Mainwaring.
Love and Selflessness. When I was at school, I once saw a local bully at the swimming baths. He was teaching his sister to swim. There is something that happens when you find out things like this. Holden Caulfield also loves his sister. It takes him beyond being just an aimless, disaffected teenager, to someone who has a capacity to care for others. Ignatius P Reilly is the object of fascination for Myrna Minkoff. Their complicated relationship somehow lifts him from being a proto-troll. As for generosity, in Restoration, Robert Merivel, Court physician, is debauched waster. But his skill as a healer, and a single selfless act redeem him.
There But For the Grace of God. The heroine in Blue Jasmine lies, cheats, is self-deluded, greedy, the list goes on. It would be hard to identify a counterbalancing positive quality. It is like watching a car crash. Perhaps she makes us feel better about ourselves.
Is Interesting. Barry Lyndon is a fantastic liar, cheat, philanderer, unreliable narrator. The manner of his storytelling holds the attention.
Invokes Compassion. There is something odd about characters like Razzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown, George Milton in Of Mice and Men, even Holly Golightly. They are broken people who believe they are in control of their lives, and adopt someone they believe to be weaker. We see the truth, and it invokes a feeling of compassion.
It’s No More Than We Would Do Ourselves. A friend of mine completely disagrees with my assessment of Logan Mountstuart. For example, she believes his behaviour in the first marriage is justified because it is a marriage of convenience. We judge a character by our own values and experience.
The Boyd List Recap. Faces obstacles, has a compensating virtue, is no worse than their victim.
As I was writing this post I tried to imagine a character for whom there could be no sympathy. Someone who comes from a background of privilege and feels he has been hard done by. Is bitter, and acts out in such a way that innocent people are hurt. Who reacts with jealousy and pettiness in relationships, and remains incapable of doing anything meaningful. And oh my god, it’s Hamlet. The character that actors fall over themselves to play, and audiences still flock to see 400 years later.
How come? It can’t just be the nobility that makes the difference; or the rightness of his cause, since he seems to lose control of that almost immediately; or even the fact that he seems to briefly pull himself together at the end. Perhaps it is just that we recognise ourselves: the lure and fear of death, a desire to do the right thing, an inability to do so. Throw in poetry in the face of the abyss, and suddenly it’s a character we are drawn to.
The writer follows the character down every dark alley, showing aspects of ourselves we need not necessarily admit to, but can recognise.
In the Guardian on 29March, John Carey picked George Orwell as his hero.
He was a truth-teller, admitting to feelings others would hide. In Burma he had found the taunts and insults of the radicalised Buddhist priests hard to bear. Part of him thought of the British Raj as a tyranny, but another thought ‘the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.’
Pleasant? No. True? Yes.
Again and again, this idea of recognition comes up. There is a moment in Charade, when James Coburn is walking through a stamp market and realises he is surrounded by the solution to a mystery. The camera cuts away: stamps, stamps, stamps. They’re everywhere. Any good character has unpleasant thoughts and behaviour. We do. Perhaps the list above is no more than the way in which we justify our own foibles. The skill of a writer is in portraying those weaknesses in such a way that as readers we can say yes, tell me more.
PS. I subsequently attended a writing evening with Greg Mosse. He said some interesting things about why we get engaged with characters even when they’re unpleasant. Firstly, that we are engaged with their volition – wanting them to do that thing they want to do – even if we don’t approve of it. Secondly, that the closeness of their observation engages us. Thirdly, as you puzzle out information about someone, you get engaged in them. We have a desire to pattern solve and problem solve.