Tag Archives: depression

Likeability and fiction

Are characters supposed to be likeable?

It’s a question that keeps making the rounds. Women, in particular, seem to get the short end of that stick as characters. As humans too, if we’re going to be honest.

In the past ten years or so, I think I’ve put down fewer than five books because I didn’t like the main character. I’m talking about characters with depth, not books I put aside because the main character was essentially a playing piece designed to be moved through the plot. I say fewer than five, but only one stands out in my mind, a character I couldn’t stand because she was so completely true to life, and true to a personality type I didn’t want to delve into at that time.

For the most part, give me a character that has a well-crafted internal landscape, no matter how different it is from mine, and I’m willing to go the distance with them. I’m rarely looking for best friends when I read a book. Instead, I’m looking for a world outside my own, one peopled by folks who are not the same as me.

I love my characters. All of them. Even the terrible ones, the ones that do irredeemable things, the ones I hope no one ever reads and thinks yeah, I’m totally cool with that guy’s actions. The ones I love the most are the flawed ones, the ones who don’t make the right choices, the ones for whom love–of friends, of family, of lovers–grows in a tangle of thorns. I love their mistakes and betrayals and sorrow. I love them when they give up, and when they don’t.

Do I like them? Would I want to sit down to dinner with them, share a bedroom with them, take a six hour car ride with them? Not many of them.

Likeability isn’t really my thing, as a writer or a reader. In my catalog of unpublished stories, I have one about a woman, a mother, choosing career over her children in a huge way. I’m not that person–I chose a life that revolves around my children and homeschooling–but I can write about that choice, can believe, absolutely, that that choice is the right one for that character, and, by extension, for some women. It goes against the likeability factor for mothers in fiction though, who often exist as either saints or monsters.

I suppose I could go a step further. I said that I look for other people, other worlds, when I read, but that’s not always true. Sometimes I look for myself. Most of the time, I don’t find me. My character is not a likeable one. I have depression, for one thing, and that shapes how I see things, how I do things, in a way that many people find upsetting or irritating or dull. My interior landscape is my own, full of monsters and challenges and good and bad, and were I one of my own characters, I would love all those pieces, but I wouldn’t make the mistake of seeing them as likeable.

One of the most wonderful things about reading is empathy. We cannot sit inside one another’s heads, not currently, but through reading we can reach into a character’s private spaces. We can be all those people we are not, perhaps even be ourselves, and we can learn to care for them. But that can only occur if two things happen. The first–writers must write characters that live, that have all those pieces, good and bad, that are real, not only likable.

And the second is that readers must read them, must be willing to take that great stretch that begins with show me who you are, all of you, all those things I might not understand, not at first. Show me, and I will follow you.

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Still here

I’m just very quiet.

I can’t speak to how all depressed minds work, merely my own. During low periods, my ability to think linearly tends to shrink. Instead of traveling from point A to point Z, with stops all through the alphabet, I go from A to B and back to A, round and round, endlessly. It makes for less than interesting conversations, and equally dull posts.

So I haven’t had much to say.

Yesterday I went on a hike with a friend. We started in the rain and ended in the sun, went around and up and back down what passes for a mountain in this area of the world. Almost to the top, we heard a noise and found a large porcupine a few feet off the trail. (If you haven’t made the acquaintance of a porcupine before, you can look here.)

This fellow wasn’t particularly threatened by us. He showed his back, shivered his quills a little, and, once he was sure we weren’t likely to try to eat him, sidled up to a raspberry cane and put a leaf in his mouth. My friend and I stood there and continued our conversation and the porcupine kept eating. All was fine until I responded to something in a rather loud voice. The porcupine gave us his version of a sigh and a dirty look, and ambled away. We offered our apologies and went on our way as well.

That’s more or less the height of excitement around here this week.


She Walked Out The Door

I’ve been trying to think of what to say about “She Walked Out The Door” for a few days. It seems simplest to be honest about it.

I said the other day that it doesn’t have a speculative element in it, and that is true. What is also true is that it shares its heart with “Ash and Dust” and “Snowfall” and all my other apocalypses. The difference is in the scale.

I’ve mentioned how I’m drawn to write dark and sad things with hopeful endings. It may be that I simply love number six of Vonnegut’s eight tips for short fiction far too much.

But it’s equally likely that it I do it because I’ve struggled with depression for all of my adult life. Depression of the sort that can bleach the world colorless and make every step through it feel pointless and daunting.

Once you’ve spent time in that landscape, something changes within you. Nothing will ever feel quite as certain again. It’s a lonely place to begin with, and in this culture, where mental illness in all its shapes is treated as shameful, it quickly can become an isolation chamber.

One of the things you learn is that returning from that place is a journey of a thousand careful steps. At first, you’re so intent on taking them that you don’t see anyone around you, but eventually you begin to look. What you find is a world full of people taking those same careful steps. People who have been carried to the edges of their own lands by private disasters, and into places they don’t think they will be able to return from.

They can. They do.

Chances are, most, if not all, of us travel to those places at some point. Lives break every day. Hearts and minds, though, they are resilient. Given the chance, they will find a way to rebuild. Grief shapes you into something new, but it doesn’t dissolve you.

“She Walked Out The Door” comes from that place.