Do we need likeable characters? – Randy Susan Meyers

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By Randy Susan Meyers

A few years ago, speaking with a reporter about my then-just-released novel, Accidents of Marriage, she mentioned how surprised she was by her negative reactions to the main character — how the character ‘provoked’ her husband. This reporter sympathized with the husband’s raging. The next day, participating on a book panel, the moderator spoke of the same husband as a virtual out-of-control monster and his wife as a frightened woman battling emotional abuse.

These opposite reactions pleased me. Making nuanced characters is a priority. Plus, just as an author’s belief system colors their work, readers bring their own experiences and judgment to our characters. Nevertheless, there’s a troubling undertone I’ve noted in reactions to novels that examine whether a woman (or man) ‘deserves’ to live without verbal, emotional, or any other sort of abuse.

In Accidents of Marriage, Maddy is married to Ben, a man with a trigger-temper; she never knows what will set it off. When he’s charming, he’s terrific: funny, smart, and capable. When he’s irate, he’s terrifying: raging, critical and blaming the world for his troubles. Relationships are never static in life and shouldn’t be in novels. Sometimes Maddy placates, working hard to keep her children unaware of the problems she and Ben face; other times frustration overwhelms her and she gives in to her edginess. Plus, she’s a bit messy, a working mother with three children who’s rarely (if ever) on top of the unending chores facing the family. When life becomes too much, she’ll nibble a Xanax. But is any of that equivalent with ‘deserving’ to be screamed at, raged at, or to be driven at speeds that petrify her. She certainly doesn’t deserve to end up in an accident that changes her entire life.

For years, I worked with batterers, men ordered to a violence intervention program. The hardest nut to crack was convincing them that one’s violence, one’s temper, or one’s temperament, shouldn’t be contingent on another’s behavior. We control ourselves. To wit, we scream at our spouses and children — rarely do we verbally attack our bosses no matter how much they enrage us. Why? Because our bosses have power over us, and we, in fact, do have control — it’s all about whether we choose to use that skill or not. And yes, it takes work.

Which brings me to the likable character. Some debate whether a book should be judged on the likeability of a character, which flies in the face of what I want in a book: to be fascinated by the men and women populating it, to root for them to change, and for them to get through their crucibles as unburned as possible. I think I’m speaking on behalf of many authors when I say: judge us on our lousy writing, our bad grammar, our lack of plot, our sloppy syntax, and our purple prose. But please, don’t expect all of us to a perfectly likeable woman when we want to get inside the head of the Carmela Sopranos of the world. The complicated women. The women we will inside; the women we live with.

And with the ‘bad guys’? I want them to own up to their deeds and pay for them.

Randy Susan Meyers’ novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence — and a long journey from idolizing bad boys to loving a good man. After years working in social service and criminal justice, Meyers published her first novel, The Murderer’s Daughters — a story of the aftermath of domestic violence. Her fourth novel, The Widow of Wall Street, releases April 11, 2017. Meyers and her husband live in Boston, where she teaches writing at Grub Street Writer’s Center in Boston and Writer in Progress in Northampton. Her novels have twice been chosen by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as “Must Read Fiction.”

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