I’m not one who believes that character likability is key to winning over the reader—for me, “relatability” is more important—but there is a character in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize) whose lack of moral compass challenges even my liberal stance.
After a night out with his college friends, Hugo has sex with the woman that Olly (his friend and the designated driver, no less) has admitted he’s in love with. Later, he hides near a phone booth and listens, amused, to Olly’s private despair as he begs for the return of her love. He’s slept with the mother of another of those friends and when with him, thinks about her naked. He tells a regular bedmate, a Brazilian nurse, that he’ll never introduce her to his parents because they don’t have that kind of relationship, and wonders “why women are uglier once they’re unpeeled, encrusted, and had.”
He steals and sells the valuable stamp collection of a former mentor suffering from Alzheimer’s and banks the money under an assumed name. He regularly fleeces another friend at cards, assuming his rich family will refill his coffers, resulting in such debt that the friend drives his last precious asset, a mint condition 1969 Aston Martin, over a cliff to end his shameful existence. Hugo’s reaction to hearing the news, after disbelief, is about the car: “I could weep. All that money.”
This character is a reprobate. What does it say about me that I cared about his story journey? Don’t judge me…yet. Suspecting mad skills, I had to go back and figure out how Mitchell won my interest.
1. First, there’s the character’s name: Hugo Lamb. Seriously—a huge lamb? Subliminally, the author is promising that the character has soft parts.
2. Hugo appreciates, in great detail, the work of 20th-century British classical composer Benjamin Britten.
3. He is entertaining. When he sees a beautiful woman in church:
The Kraken in my boxer shorts awakes.
4. His intelligence is on display during a long, off-the-cuff argument on the nature of power.
5. When it suits him, he’s loyal and protective. An undergrad in politics, he poses as a postgrad law student to warn off aggressors that threaten his group of friends.
6. The reason he knows about the brigadier’s stamp collection is because he visits him regularly in the nursing home to read to him.
7. Someone appreciates Hugo for who he is. At one point, Olly’s “girlfriend” tells Hugo:
“The problem with the Ollies of the world is their niceness. Niceness drives me mental.”
You, Hugo,” she kisses my earlobe, “are a sordid, low-budget French film. The sort you’d stumble across on TV at night. You know you’ll regret it in the morning, but you keep watching anyway.”
8. He is self-aware: [Read more…]