I was trying to summarize A Streetcar Named Desire to one of my best friends a couple of nights ago, and after my garbled synopsis (which went something like “High-strung and slightly batty southern belle is raped by brutish brother-in-law and goes cuckoo bonkers”) and my peanut-gallery critique of the movie (“Holy cow Marlon Brando was hot but his voice ohmigod HIS VOICE, he looked like Adonis but sounded like Bugs freakin’ Bunny”) was done with, he looked at me and said “It sounds like all the characters in that story are pretty awful people. *brief pause* So, you must’ve really liked it, right?”
I would’ve smacked him on the head for his insolence, but then his roommate distracted us and we dropped that line of conversation. However, I’ve been thinking some more about this issue, and to be fair, my friend has a point. Every time we talk about books, especially books that we think aren’t just Good, but Great Literature, I tend to drag up all these novels with sketchy characters.
See, the two of us have somewhat different criteria as to what constitutes a great book. One of the major elements my friend looks for is sympathetic characters who undergo some type of growth, especially moral development. I’m…hell, I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know that many of my favorite books (Sacred Hunger, Perfume, Trainspotting, Mosquito Coast and Lolilta, just to name a few) feature characters who aren’t necessarily redeemed or redeemable. Sure, some of them come to a sticky end by the end of the story, thereby satisfying my sense of justice (and my punitive urges), but some of them don’t, and really, I’m not too bothered by it either way. Hell, I like the Flashman novels, and their schtick centers around a protagonist who’s constantly (albeit inadvertently) rewarded for being a complete asshole.
One thing is for sure: people who write about assholes—especially charismatic assholes—have their jobs cut out for them. Yes, assholes are interesting to read about, but the trick is to somehow make the readers care about them and what happens to them—make us root for them, or understand them, or feel sympathy, even, although we don’t want to.
However, there’s one glaring exception to my “don’t need to like the protagonists” attitude: romance novels.
It’s not that I want to be able to identify with the characters, or that I somehow place myself in the love stories. It’s just that in order for me to enjoy a romance novel, in addition to understanding and sympathizing with the hero and heroine, I have to like them. Love them, even. In order for the love story to work for me, I need to root for them, and be emotionally invested in their happiness.
So really, it’s related to the happily-ever-after ending coupled with my sense of justice. I can handle reading about villainous characters who enjoy material pleasures. The bad guy can have lots of money, fame, a high ranking in society, etc. etc., but at the end of the book, he can’t have found true love. I think ultimately, my sense of justice can’t stand the villain being happy; I can accept that wealth, fame and all the rest of it can’t bring happiness, but love actually can.
And that’s why I’m so squeamish about asshole heroes, especially heroes who rape. That’s not to say I don’t like dark heroes. I love heroes who are dark and angsty and on the edge, but they have to be every bit as hard on themselves—if not harder—than they are on the heroines. Laura Kinsale, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Loretta Chase have written some wonderful heroes in that mold. (Justin Vallerand from Only With Your Love holds the “fucked-up hero I’d love to boink senseless but whose love would probably scare the shit out of me” spot in my heart.) But heroes who beat and brutalize the heroine, who rape her, who engage in emotionally abusive behaviors (quite a few romance novel heroes seem to follow the classic abuser model quite nicely, really) cross the line from “fucked up and interesting” to “fucked up and should have a restraining order taken out against him.”
It’s also why romance novels with awful heroes enrage me in a way few books can. Dude’s getting rewarded for his brutish behavior! Double you tee eff, mate? It’s not just my sense of aesthetic that’s getting a sound drubbing; my sense of justice is, too.
What about you? Where do you fall in the “must have sympathetic characters” spectrum? And how dark can a hero get before he’s beyond the pale?