let’s do away with “flat characters.” Let’s also do away with “round characters,” “believable characters,” and “unbelievable characters.” These terms have been driven into the ground and I don’t even know what they mean anymore. Round characters are supposed to be fully fleshed-out people we could recognize in the real world. But fidelity to the “real” in fiction is a bizarre concept—it’s all made up, none of it is real. The characters that truly stick with me are those that behave in ways so true to themselves, and to their own personalities, that they commit acts that feel weird or frustrating.
Saul Bellow is the master of the agitating protagonist. The strength of his narrative voice and the aggressiveness of his protagonists’ points of view make Bellow’s books truly unique. A reader who hasn’t discovered Bellow yet is missing out on some of the most inward looking, selfish, and frustrating characters in all of fiction.
Take, for instance, Henderson from Henderson the Rain King. In the first hundred pages of the novel, Henderson leaves a post-it on a dead woman, goes out of his way to remind his wife of how her father committed suicide, ignores the baby that his teenage daughter is suddenly carrying around (and may have given birth to), sends the baby to an orphanage, travels to Africa, and destroys an isolated tribe’s cistern, which is their only source of clean water.
He’s a jerk, he’s impossible, he’s the kind of guy who would keep you from going to a friend’s party if you knew he’d be there. And he’s absolutely spellbinding.
When I say “agitating” I don’t necessarily mean surprising or sudden. Character actions are generally predictable because characters act from their own personalities. The reader knows Henderson is going to blow up the cistern because he can’t help but make a mess of everything. Bellow could have made it easier on the reader—Henderson could have learned his lessons some other way. But that’s just the point; Henderson has to flail about and act as if no one else in the world matters. That’s who he is, and it doesn’t matter if it’s unpleasant on the reader.
Elissa Schappell’s Use Me is a collection of linked short stories that focus on Evie and Mary Beth, two women who over the course of a long friendship go to college, make it through the death of a parent, the birth of a child, and a series of heart-wrenching crises.
The reader learns early on that Mary Beth makes some questionable decisions when it comes to men, especially older men. In the second story of the collection, “Novice Bitch,” high-school age Mary Beth is having an affair with a thirty-three year old man and is about to have her third abortion.
In “The Garden of Eden,” Evie and Mary Beth are spending a post-college summer in Amsterdam. Evie’s father comes to visit, and the reader knows that eventually Mary Beth will come on to Evie’s father—not because she wants to, or because she’s even that attracted to him, but because that’s who she is, and that’s what she does. The reader expects this moment from the first page, and the story’s tension lies in seeing how Mary Beth will do it and in the brief, flickering hope that it won’t happen. Maybe Mary Beth will do the right thing and not make an impact on this man just because she can. Of course, on the last page, in the last paragraph, in the last sentence it happens. We knew it was coming. We cringe while it happens, and we hate Mary Beth for doing it, but we keep reading the book, wondering how Mary Beth will piss us off next.
These aren’t totally unredeemable characters, and I’m not saying that frustrating characters are the only ones I like. But I do think that the best writers create characters who aren’t afraid to occasionally challenge us, and who dare us to stay on their side. It’s all the more rewarding when we stick with them and see their journey to the end.
—Richard Z Santos