Vengeful Moments and Other Character Flaws

I wasn’t a slash his tires or leave dead animals sort of girl. Yes, I could curse well enough–may he get two flat tires in a blizzard ten miles for anywhere with a bout of the stomach flu the night before the wedding–but when given the I-like-you-but speech, I said, “Okay, fine,” and left.

End of story. Until one sunny December day before the Christmas holiday. I was eating lunch with a friend, D., in the dorm. D. was in a fraternity and a pledge joined us. “Where are you from?” I asked. The thing was, I already knew where he was from. I knew who he was related to. But he didn’t know me.

three perfectly balanced libras
three perfectly balanced libras

He told me his hometown. “Really?” I said. “I know someone from there.” I gave him my ex’s name. His eyes widened. “Hey, he’s my brother-in-law!”

“Is he?” I said. “Your _____’s brother?”

“Yeah! Small world,” he said.

I nodded. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make the wedding,” I said. I was avoiding looking at D. I could feel his efforts to control his laughter. “Was it nice?”

“You were invited?” he asked.

“I still have the invitation as a matter of fact. Say, are you going to see them over the Christmas break?”

“Sure.”

“Will you tell them I said hello?”

“Oh yeah. Sure.”

After the Christmas break, I was walking across campus when I ran into D. He shook his head when he saw me. “You’re in trouble,” he said.

“How’s that then?” I asked, checking my watch, not wanting to be late to class.

“_____ doesn’t want to see you.”

I forgot about my class. I felt a wicked happiness surge through me. “What happened?”

D. shook his head. “He told his sister you said hello.”

I thought about how back in the spring _____’s sister had showed up at my dorm room with two friends at 1 in the morning to beat me up. I imagined the family gathering with her and him hearing that I’d said hello. I laughed.

I saw the brother a few times that spring. He never did speak to me again.

In fiction, main characters do not always behave in a noble fashion. They are not saints, but we care about them anyway. Or we should if the writer has done a good job. I struggle with giving a character flaws that will not make her (or him) annoying, wretched, or despicable. Then there are the choices a character must make. The story would wither away if characters made wise, moral choices. But they can’t make choices that turn the reader away. Bad, but not too bad. Foolish, but not too foolish.

Have you ever read a novel where the main character loses you? You start the story and give that character your time and interest, and then what the hell are you doing? you ask the character. Maybe you’re the type to stick with the book anyway or the type to toss the book on the floor. Either way–you no longer care.

Can you remember such a book? Did you keep reading or give it up? Of course, maybe you gave up and forgot. I suppose I’d rather have a dislikable character than a forgettable one. What about you?

9 thoughts on “Vengeful Moments and Other Character Flaws

  1. My stepson and I were kidding the other night about those mercifully rare moments, early in adulthood, when you’ve had juuusssst enough to drink: on the way home via a familiar route, you suddenly become aware that you must have passed some number of familiar landmarks without seeing them, and are now (say) five miles closer to home.

    (Yes, we’re aware NOW that those moments are worth kidding about only in retrospect — that they’re not something to look forward to if you want to live.)

    My point was that reading some books, for me, is the OPPOSITE of that experience. Fully awake, fully, aware, you’re cruising along towards the next destination (whatever it turns out to be — say, a chapter or section break). You may not know the route, but you know how many miles you have to go. So you’re cruising. And cruising. And cruising. You check the odometer and it’s like, Sheesh — I’ve only gone two freaking miles?!?

    I periodically had that experience in every Harry Potter book beyond the first. It didn’t last long*, but there’d always be a point where HP himself would strain credibility and, yeah, likability.

    *Well, except for the last book — the scene in the forest which seemed to occupy the middle forty percent of the text without, it felt, much going on either inwardly or outwardly.

  2. Pamela

    I know a writer’s lost me when my day dreams are plotting the death of the main character. I’m hoping for some accident to put the whole novel out of it’s misery. I can’t remember the titles. I just stopped reading the books. It’s painful just hoping it will get better.

  3. I read a book recently where I didn’t like the main character much at all, but the writing was so beautiful that I stayed up too late reading it, studying the way the author used the words to seduce me against my will into reading the book to the end.

  4. SBW’s comment reminds me of something I should have added, re: the Potter books…

    Although I always had those (sometimes extended) moments of frustration with the title character and/or with some scene’s dragging out, I always kept reading. I wasn’t astute enough to attend to how Rowling was holding my interest. But I do know that I trusted her enough to keep going, and never left one of those books behind without feeling a bit of melancholy mixed with satisfaction.

  5. Were you really invited to the wedding or were you “fictionalizing?”

    And it’s true that we need to add flaws to characters. Perfection is not interesting. I have a character now, though, that I think I took too far. Although, maybe I can solve that issue of her being preachy and annoying by looking at her through her sister’s eyes. A little hero worship would be a good antidote to her sophomoric righteousness. She isn’t really bad, she just is a little young and ignorant… a temporary condition.

  6. I tend to give books 100 pages. If they haven’t hooked me in by then, I put it in the dusty dumb books pile. I’m embarrassed to say that both Crime & Punishment, and, The Life of Pi fall into this category. Everyone raves about them so I have attempted more than one reading for each. 3 for Crime & Punishment, 2 for Life of Pi and they were incredibly boring for me. I did read Rohinton Mistry’s: A Fine Balance about life in India in the tumultuos 1970’s on the recommendation of an English teacher friend of mine. I read it even though it was hands down the most depressing book I have ever read. I wanted to put it down, but I just kept hoping for SOMETHING decent to happen to the characters. However, the ending was even more depressing than the preceding 600 pages. To this day, three years after reading, I am mad at myself for not having put down the book sooner. It was that depressing and the unending despair of the characters remains in the bottom of my stomach still.

    I do adore the classics and I’m fascinated by really good literature. Everything from Jane Austen whose books I have read at least 3 times apiece, to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s: The Shadow of the Wind, hold me captivated. I’m telling you that so you don’t think that I’m an idiot who only reads pulp fiction, which I actually abhor. I’m mostly a sci-fi fantasy girl, partial to the eco-feminist sci-fi of Sheri S Tepper (whom I met last fall when I found her guest ranch in Santa Fe and stayed for a week, walking her dogs every day, and chatting with her in the mornings.) And anything with dragons and magic automatically interests me. I’m a geek that way. But I take a break from those books to read the lettered correspondence between John and Abigail Adams and Anna Karenina just to round me out. Now I am simply awaiting another work of literature – yours- to hold me captive and sigh at the prodigious talents of another great novelist.

    No pressure. =)

  7. Characters are more important to me than anything else, including plot or even wrting style. I recently tried to re-read a series of mysteries I’d read a few years ago that I reeealy wanted to like because they were so well-written, but the two main characters felt so sorry for themselves and behaved so poorly and illogically that I gave up part way through the first book in the series and donated them to the library. Life’s too short.

  8. rowena, yes, I was “fictionalizing.” I did actually have an invitation but that was because is true heartbroken 19 yr old fashion I stole it.

    Karen, really? Don’t remember? I that a good thing?

    Sophie, yeah thanks. No pressure…

    oh dear.

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