Just recently, a friend of mine was decribing her reaction to Freedom, the new Jonathan Franzen novel. While she thought the writing was impressive, she just didn’t find the characters likeable, so she felt disappointed and lukewarm about the book. Sound familiar? I remember getting ten pages or so into a novel by a well-known writer and realizing that if the main character was run over by a truck in the next chapter, I wouldn’t really care, so I just stopped reading. Has that ever happened to you?
Complex characters who are real and whole — and who demand our emotional energy — are the ones we remember long after we’ve put down a novel or seen a film. Likeable or even devilish, if we connect with them in some way, then they can hold our attention and our interest. If they seem believable and all too human on some deep level, then as readers, most of the time we’re more than willing to take a journey somewhere with them. Bringing sympathy for their characters to the page — that’s how writers inspire and even impel us to connect with them emotionally. And that’s when they come alive and when we come to see ourselves, with all our desires, failed hopes, and flaws, in them.
Picking up Alex’s copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls a few weeks ago, it seemed as fresh and appealing as it was the first time I read it as a teenager. The main character, Robert Jordan is so real, so fully human. He’s portrayed with such sympathy, such attention to what matters to him and why, that you can’t help but want him to survive and live a long full life, though you fear somehow, that this is not in the cards for him. But Hemingway lavishes the same loving attention on a far less likeable character, Pablo. And so, even though he threatens the success of Jordan’s mission and is despised and diminished by the people around him, there’s still a spark of humanity and hope that makes Pablo not only believable but redeemable and worth caring about. It’s Hemingway’s sympathy for his characters that shapes our response to them. We care because he does.