Photo by Send me adrift.

We’re thrilled to host today’s guest, Andrea Lochen. Although Andrea dreamed of being an author since the third grade, she didn’t realize creative writing was “an actual thing” until she stumbled upon the writing program at the University of Wisconsin. Andrea went on to receive her MFA from the University of Michigan. During that time, she was able to complete a rough draft of The Repeat Year, which received a Hopwood Award for the Novel. Andrea has taught writing at the University of Michigan and currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. She lives in suburban Milwaukee with her husband and their adorably fluffy dog, Maddy. In her free time, she likes to bake cupcakes and cakes, spend time with her family, see musicals and plays, and read as much as humanly possible. The Repeat Year is her first novel.

What’s the book about?

Everyone has days, weeks, even months they wish they could do over—but what about an entire year? After living through the worst twelve months of her life, intensive care nurse Olive Watson is given a second chance to relive her past and attempt to discover where she went wrong.

After a year of hardships including a messy breakup with her longtime boyfriend Phil, the prospect of her mother’s remarriage, and heartbreaking patient losses at the hospital, Olive is ready to start fresh. But when she wakes up in her ex-boyfriend’s bed on New Year’s Day 2011—a day she has already lived—Olive’s world is turned upside down.

Shouldering a year of memories that no one else can recall, even Olive begins to question herself—until she discovers that she is not alone. Crossing paths with Sherry Witan, an experienced “repeater,” Olive learns that she has the chance to rewrite her future. Given the opportunity of a lifetime, Olive has to decide what she really wants. Should she make different choices, or accept her life as she knows it, flaws and all?

As a debut women’s fiction writer, Andrea has found that her characters are often judged by what she calls “the friend factor.”  We’re excited that she’s joined us today to explore the issue of likeability in female characters–how important is it? Do authors compromise the story they want to tell in order to create a protagonist with whom readers would like to have coffee? And do readers tend to be more accepting of unlikeable male characters?

Hear more about what Andrea has to say on her website or on Facebook.

Female Protagonists: Do They Need to be Friend Material?

Much has been written about the “likeability” quandary of literary characters.  The Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud about her new novel The Woman Upstairs resurrected this debate.  When the interviewer mentioned she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s protagonist, Nora, Messud shot back, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections?…If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

When I first read her response, I felt an inward divide between my perspectives as both a writer and a reader.  The writer in me thrilled.  Right on, Claire!  Tell it like it is!  As a debut author of a women’s fiction novel, The Repeat Year, I find my characters are often judged based on “the friend factor”—would the reader want to be friends with Olive, Kerrigan, Sherry, and the others?  Or as Tessa Hadley put it in The New Yorker, “If ever I go to talk to book groups when they’re reading my book, this likeability issue is always what comes up—‘Oh, I didn’t like her’, ‘she’s so selfish,’ or ‘I couldn’t find anyone to like.’ Or—more comforting for the author but, in the end, part of the same problem—‘I really liked your character.’”  Many readers review books based on how pleasant their time spent with the characters was and if they morally agree with the characters’ choices, and this can be a problematic disconnect between readers and writers.

At the same time, the avid reader in me asked, What’s so bad about likeable characters?  I LIKE likeable characters!  Readers tend to gravitate toward protagonists they can relate to, characters with sparkling personalities that they wish they could befriend in real life. (I would love to be best friends with Elizabeth Bennet, Jo March, Marisa de los Santos’ Cornelia Brown or any of the main characters from The Help.)  Jennifer Weiner maintained in Slate: “I will freely admit to reading books to find friends. I did it when I was young, and friendless; I do it now that I’m an adult…Sure, I’ll stick with a compelling villain, or a warts-and-all portrayal of a real person…but I won’t deny myself the pleasures of a funny, frank, intimate take on being a mother, a wife, a woman whose dreams have been thwarted by her real-world responsibilities.”  Weiner offers a vision where there is room for characters across the spectrum: “Ideally, our shelves, and even individual books, should contain the rainbow…for the lovable and the despicable, for Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter, for Bridget Jones and even the poor, scorned Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

But the problem is female novelists are getting boxed in and pressured to write characters who are more likeable in order to have their books sell.  And although writers of both genders can face the unlikeable character accusation, there does seem to be a strong double standard.  As Rivka Galchen suggested, “we are well-trained to like ‘unappealing’ male characters—so much so that I would imagine anyone who wanted their male character to be truly and deeply unlikeable would face quite a challenge. Conversely, we are not well-trained to like anyone other than the basically virtuous and proficient female protagonist.”  But how do we go about this “training,” especially if authors and their audience have different objectives?

As writers, we are taught that characters shouldn’t be perfect people.  In fact, they should be flawed human beings who come across as both realistic and believable.  If our characters are flawless, there is no conflict, nothing interesting is happening, and the reader is probably bored.  In the book I consider to be the Bible of writing, Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s Writing Fiction, (from which I was taught as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin and which I currently use to teach Creative Writing to my own college students), they make the distinction that “we must care about what happens to them [fictional characters].”  It’s one thing to like and care about a character because she is kind, generous, and selfless.  It is quite another thing to care about a character even when she is arrogant, petty, and irresponsible: to believe in characters so much that we are invested in what happens to them in spite of their flaws.

The Repeat Year is a clever meditation on time travel. In Lochen’s hands, it’s far more than a plot gimmick —it’s about the myriad ways we second-guess and sabotage ourselves in the name of finding happiness. Her characters must find ways to let go of regrets and cherish the small moments of love in life, right now. I enjoyed this a lot.”

– Margaret Dilloway, author of How to Be An American Housewife and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns

And this is the real challenge of fiction—rendering the most unlikable characters as lovable, flaws and all.  The more we read, the more empathetic we become because we feel momentarily that we have inhabited their skin and understand what it is like to be them.  When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, he knew what an uncomfortable and disturbing position he was putting his readers in, asking us to empathize with a child molester.  And even while we despise Humbert Humbert, we can’t help continuing to read the novel and wonder what will happen to both him and Lolita.

Of course, not all readers will appreciate these types of characters, and it is the reader’s prerogative and right to choose.  I think one of the reasons why J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy was met with such mixed reviews was because the characters in the Harry Potter series are some of the most beloved, likeable characters ever written.  Readers were therefore startled to encounter the residents of Pagford who seemed judgmental and self-absorbed.  But more importantly, their motives were always clear, and at times as I read it, I was moved to pity because I felt I understood the culmination of all their choices, mistakes, secret hopes and fears.  In my opinion, that is one of the most important gifts that good books offer us.

I read it as a sign of progress that writers like Claire Messud are pushing against these stereotypes.  Maybe in the future this notion of female characters needing to be agreeable will be dispelled.  Maybe their personalities will run the gamut, just like real-life women.  But until then, my advice is to focus less on making your characters likeable and more on making them interesting and believable.  And if you’re like me, and you love your characters, even the truly flawed ones, hopefully that love will come through to your readers and they will enjoy the lesson in empathy.

As a reader, what do you expect from characters? Do you open a book hoping to find a friend within its pages, or is it more satisfying for you to discover flawed characters with whom you learn to empathize, despite themselves? As a writer, do you struggle with this dilemma? If so, how have you chosen to handle it?