• John Grabowski

Connecting to a story's characters

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

Instead of "relatable" characters (aka, characters like us), aren't compelling, audacious characters really

It can drive me nuts: People who read a terrific novel and say, "I really didn't like the main character," or "I couldn't relate to anyone."

I can understand the need to relate. We all like what's familiar. At the same time, if you require novels that cater to your personal preferences, you'll be limiting yourself. Many times we can get so much more from observing what we don't necessarily like. The job of the author, in other words, isn't to appeal to your tastes or ego, and might I suggest the success of their novel hinges more on how much further they've made you see or think than on if the main character was your personal hero. Because that's so limiting.

For me, a protagonist who fails to see his tragic flaws, coupled with a narrator who makes sure we do, is a pretty powerful and valuable combination, one that makes fiction a special and unique art form. President Obama might even call it a teachable moment.

Yet for so many readers novels must have morally-upright "heroes," and they rate how "good" the works are by evaluating the main characters' behavior, or at least their ability to have an epiphany before the end. For that reason much popular fiction feels, to me, phony, contrived, and even formulaic. To make sure readers aren't alienated, many authors may be afraid to stray from tried-and-true formula.

Might I suggest a different approach? When you're reading a story whose main character isn't appealing, don't try to be at one with the character, try to be at one with the larger story the character is in. Maybe even pity the character; they are trapped in themselves and don't have a larger perspective, kind of like the fish in the fish bowl. You, on the other hand, do, because you're above the character, above the story, above the action.

Enjoy that privileged view.

Violet Rothko and Other Stories will be released on September 24th by Millennium. On sale at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and independent bookstores.

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