Novels We Like Can Have an Unlikable Cast

Can we like novels filled with unlikable characters?

Yes, though it’s kind of depressing when there’s not even one main player to sympathize with or admire. Instead, we hope the story line is compelling enough and the writing impressive enough to make up for the absence of congenial characters.

This topic came to mind after I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History earlier this month. Many of the novel’s Vermont college students and other characters are cold, spoiled, whiny, annoying, entitled, users of drugs, heavy drinkers, and/or other negative things. Heck, some of them are killers, too. Still, I mostly liked the book overall for its originality and excellent writing. But I liked Tartt’s later The Goldfinch a lot more — it’s a masterpiece of fiction with a very satisfying conclusion, AND its flawed Theo Decker protagonist has some positive qualities.

Another excellent novel with virtually all unlikable characters is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. That book’s white gang members sweep their way through the mid-1800s American West slaughtering innocent Native Americans, Hispanics, and others. Even “the kid,” Blood Meridian‘s nameless teen character, is only somewhat less despicable than the men he falls in with. But this novel is often considered McCarthy’s best, for its powerful prose and truth-telling. Indeed, many white men in that time and place were a brutal bunch — exemplifying how a novel filled with unlikable characters can be quite realistic given the many hateful real-life people of the past and present.

In Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, former Iran military man Massoud, the drug-using/irresponsible Kathy, and the adulterous/takes-sides deputy sheriff Lester are all unlikable protagonists and/or do dumb, nasty things as they fight over ownership of a California home — though the novel does have a sympathetic secondary character in Massoud’s wife Nadi. But the feverishly intense House of Sand and Fog is a riveting read.

Then there’s Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, in which one can sympathize somewhat with the title character’s difficult lot in life yet not like her that much. And the major characters surrounding her — including her husband Camille, her lover Laurent, and Therese’s mother-in-law — are far from admirable, with Laurent joining Therese in becoming murderers. Yet Zola’s early-career novel is quite readable, though much less accomplished than his later classics such as Germinal.

Humor also helps to make a novel appealing despite unappealing characters. For instance, the buffoonish Ignatius J. Reilly and most of the other people in A Confederacy of Dunces are either unlikable or very weird (which actually can be welcome in a novel). But John Kennedy Toole’s book is hilarious, and quite different, so it’s okay that there’s no character who readers would particularly want to meet in real life.

What are your favorite novels with few or no likable characters?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column, about a graduation and parks, is here.

It Takes Two to Write a Novel (Sometimes)

When I attended another great National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference this month, it struck me yet again how nice it is be with other columnists and bloggers. Can that extend to writing novels?

Not much, it seems. A very small percentage of fiction books are co-authored, and it’s easy to see why. Novel-writing is meant to be a solitary thing, writing with another person can be difficult logistically and emotionally, and a book usually needs to have a certain narrative “voice” from only one person. There’s a reason why the phrase “writing by committee” has negative connotations — including the frequent result of things being watered down. (Nonfiction is a somewhat different animal with more collaborations, though not that many.)

Still, two authors can occasionally be a positive — with a duo bringing two perspectives, two kinds of expertise, and two of various other attributes to one book.

Perhaps the most famous co-authored novel is The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who didn’t write each chapter together. Instead, Twain penned some sections of the book while Warner wrote other sections. Twain’s parts of The Gilded Age are of course vivid and satirical while Warner’s are more conventional (including a romance) yet still pretty good.

Stephen King and Peter Straub, best known as horror/suspense writers, collaborated on The Talisman and its sequel Black House. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman co-wrote Good Omens, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford co-penned Romance, Dave Barry co-authored Peter and the Starcatchers and other novels with Ridley Pearson and Lunatics with Alan Zweibel, Carl Hiaasen did three early-career novels with William Montalbano, and Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk co-created Ciao Bella.

Of course, there are a number of novel collaborations that are at least partly hidden — as when certain famous authors have assistants do some of the work. And then there are novels finished by another person after the original author dies; one example of that was The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., started by Jack London (based on an idea by Sinclair Lewis!) and completed by Robert L. Fish.

What do you think of novels being co-authored — the pros and the cons? Do you have any favorites in that small genre?

(Speaking of double-bylined works, last night I saw a community-theater production of The Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who are best known for their newspaper play The Front Page.)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Hooray for Historical Fiction!

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be posting one more blog rerun today as I cope with a busy month that included attending a GREAT June 8-11 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire. I’ll return to doing all-new posts next Sunday, June 18, but, until then, here’s a slightly revised piece from November 3, 2011:

It’s a current fact that I love historical fiction. No, not the kind that wrongly said Barack Obama was born outside the U.S., but the kind in novels.

Why is historical fiction great? For one thing, it enables you to learn about the past in a way that goes down easily and entertainingly.

I realize it might be better to read nonfiction history books than historical fiction. After all, historical fiction can idealize, over-dramatize, and “error-ize” the past. But this fun and absorbing novel genre is better than reading no history at all — especially when the author does plenty of research.

Books of total fiction are wonderful, but there’s something about partly factual novels that excite readers. Knowing that the made-up characters you’re bonding with are experiencing real events, living through real times of societal progress or regress, and meeting real celebrities of their era can help make a novel fascinating.

Want to know more about U.S. history? There’s Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which takes its title from the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Or try E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex — two books that happen to share a real-life character by the name of Henry Ford. Or William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident — a pair of novels that address America’s brutal system of slavery. Or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which includes Mexican as well as U.S. history; Gore Vidal’s Burr, Lincoln, and 1876; and many other titles by many other authors.

Almost everything I know about pre-1800 Scottish history I learned from Sir Walter Scott’s excellent novels, including Rob Roy and Old Mortality. I picked up some French history by reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (the French Revolution), Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequels (in which Louis XIV appears), Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock (French immigrants in 17th-century Quebec), and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (perhaps you’ve heard of her).

Care for a baseball book that mixes fact and fiction? Try Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back (about a time traveler from the 20th century who hooks up with baseball’s 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings as well as Mark Twain — before he wrote that Joan of Arc novel).

The 1800s are also the time of Alias Grace, in which Margaret Atwood brilliantly reconstructs a Canadian double-murder case and makes an engrossing character out of Grace Marks — who may or may not have participated in the killings.

Whether the real-life people in novels are obscure (Ms. Marks) or famous (Mr. Twain), historical fiction can humanize them — moving them from cardboard cutouts to flesh-and-blood protagonists who seem as three-dimensional as the made-up characters with whom they interact.

That, if you’ll excuse the hackneyed phrase, makes history come alive.

What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which discusses such topics as Trump’s pulling out of the Paris climate accord — is here.

When Fictional Characters Do the Unexpected

During the next two weeks, I’m attending a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, and also dealing with some other responsibilities. So I decided to save my next new blog post for Sunday, June 18.

Today and on June 11, I’m reprinting (with slight changes) previously posted literature pieces. The column below is one I wrote for The Huffington Post five years ago — two years before I fled the site (after finally growing disgusted with the lack of pay and other problems there) to start this blog in July 2014.

Here’s that half-decade-old post from June 7, 2012:

Stereotypes can contain a grain of truth, but they’re often pernicious. So, it’s refreshing when some novels feature a character who breaks ethnic or gender molds.

For instance, Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here includes a 19th-century Jewish character named Ephraim who’s a macho, hard-bitten, frontier type of guy. When he makes his first dramatic appearance in the bitter Canadian cold throwing bear meat to his sled dogs, one thinks more of Jack London than Woody Allen.

Then there’s the title character of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an American nerd of Dominican descent. Perhaps not the ethnicity you’d expect to be out in force at the next Star Trek convention.

And there’s the Chinese-American housekeeper Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Many servants from that era were of course smarter than they were allowed to show their alleged “betters,” but the depth of Lee’s intellect and philosophical musings is off the charts.

How about the bold, holds-her-own-with-the-guys Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins’ mystery The Woman in White? She’s hardly the stereotypical female one sees in many other male-authored novels published during the Victorian Age.

And Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews flips a gender stereotype by having a male title character who protects his virginity against female seducers as he overcomes obstacles to be with his true love.

Then there’s Colette’s Cheri and Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which women are in relationships with men half their age. That’s not unheard of, but it certainly shows up less often than the older-male/much-younger-female dynamic in many novels — including classics such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and modern fiction such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

Breaking stereotypes doesn’t just involve gender or ethnicity.

In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, for example, the protagonist is a smart but physically weak man named Humphrey van Weyden who is picked up by the brutish Capt. Wolf Larsen after a collision at sea. By the time the book concludes, Humphrey ends up being far from the stereotype of a soft intellectual.

Set at around the same time that London’s novel was written, E.R. Greenberg’s baseball novel The Celebrant features an ardent New York Giants fan who becomes friendly with early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson. But unlike the typical besotted sports lover, this immigrant jeweler doesn’t fawn over Mathewson, try to pal around him, or exploit the relationship in any other way.

And how about wealthy literary creations who do the right thing rather than behave like spoiled brats? One such non-stereotypical character is the star of Honoré de Balzac’s César Birotteau who acts with rock-solid integrity after falling into debt. Unlike today’s bankers who privatize the gain and socialize the loss, Birotteau wouldn’t dream of being bailed out.

Of course, if authors deliberately avoid stereotypes enough times, that can become stereotypical…  🙂

Who are your favorite non-stereotypical literary characters?

(Some days this week, I’ll be slower than usual replying to comments, but will answer eventually!)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which includes made-up quotes “from” Trump and other objectionable politicians — is here.