This week I’ve read three — count ’em, three — unpublished novels featuring handsome, resourceful, wise, flawless protagonists. These remarkable characters never fail (although they are occasionally derailed, albeit temporarily, by evil or stupid secondary characters). They do not misstep. They never doubt themselves. They don’t, heaven forbid, even sweat.
And they make me hate them.
Why? Because they are perfect. They bear no relation to me, the reader. They are better than I am, in a way that sets my teeth on edge. I don’t want to emulate them, because I can’t. I can’t match their robotic perfection, their effortless sex appeal, their innate success at life. All I want to do is to murder them in some extremely undignified and messy way. Or set fire to the books in which they play out their phony lives.
The disconnect here is that one person — well, three people — loved these characters: their authors. All three of these (again, unpublished) writers –plus a few thousand others, if my guess is right– went to the immense trouble of crafting entire novels around characters who are guaranteed to turn off anyone who reads about them.
Again, why? Why create characters that readers detest? Because that’s who the author wants to be. And perhaps thinks he is, in his oh-so carefully camouflaged heart of hearts. Bond, James Bond, c’est moi.
Wait a minute, I hear these authors saying. What about James Bond, a truly perfect character who does work, literarily speaking? Here is a man who sunbathes in order to harden his skin, without thought as to how a tan will enhance his already devastating attractiveness. Who, even in the presence of evil genius, always maintains the upper hand. Men fear him, women want him. And yet readers don’t hate him. Far from it: An entire generation fell under Ian Fleming’s spell as he trotted out his dashing alter ego again and again in a series of plot-driven fantasies in which action was of paramount importance, followed by accurate research, simple but effective structure, and a certain macho wit. The personalities of the characters in these books, including Bond himself, are of virtually no importance: Fleming might as well have given Bond and, say, Goldfinger names like “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy”. He declined to explore anything about the inner life of an intelligence operative ; he just told a good story expertly peppered with authentic details and excellent plotting. That is what genre writing is all about. And make no mistake: Genre writing can be masterful.
But the three seemingly interminable tomes I encountered this week were not genre stories. They were attempts at mainstream fiction. Their protagonists were supposed to be characters that readers could identify with, although that wasn’t what happened. The problem was that the authors sacrificed reader-identifiability for personal ego gratification.
Nobody wants to participate in a fantasy in which he or she is not the main character. In the Bond novels, the reader gets to be the main character, much like the animated figures in a video game. The “hero” is a cipher, a vehicle built for the chase, into which we are invited to insert ourselves. But in order to have a thinking, feeling character whose take on life resonates with our own, the protagonist must have warts — that is, fears, worries.. something to lose. He must make choices. He must, even if he is an outcast, be aware of the fabric of society.
The only way to achieve this sort of three-dimensional character is for you, the writer, to explore yourself, your real self, your own warts, foibles, insecurities, your points of petty desperation, your secret darknesses. You must be willing to reveal the depth of who you really are. To bare your soul, as it were, and more: I think of writing — particularly the terrifying act of showing my work to others — as lying naked on a table and inviting the general public to look me over and laugh at my deformities.
This isn’t easy. I believe, in fact, that it’s one of the main reasons why a lot of people with writing ability don’t write. It’s just so damned personal. How much easier it is to create the person we want to be, the person we would like the world to perceive as our true selves.
Easy, yes. Honest, no. Greeting your reading public in a tuxedo will interest no one for long. You have to be naked in order to show them what they look like naked. When you do, something will pass between you, a current forevermore connecting you, the author, to me, the reader, that resonates with authenticity. Then will we both have experienced something of the truth.