Okay, I suspect this isn't going to be my most popular post ever, but what the heck. (Feel free to comment and tell me why I'm wrong...)
No surprise, but I read a lot of books - but also a lot about books. Reviews, articles, interviews, blogs - and one of the great things about the internet is the how democratic this has all become. Anyone can share their views on books, and we can all read it. But reading all this stuff about books as I do, I believe something needs to be said:
The primary goal of every piece of fiction is not to depict realistic characters. There, I've said it.
Of course, depicting realistic characters is an honourable and traditional goal of much fiction, and drama - Hamlet would be over in about five minutes if the prince was an impetuous, bloody thirsty type of guy, rather than the procrastinating worrywort he is.
But would the outcome of The Trial be that much different if Josef K had a different personality? Isn't part of the point that he is caught up in a bureaucratic process that depersonalises those in its clutches? I think so, and I think part of The Trial's power is that K. is depicted as an 'everyman' - if he was a 'someone' the focus of the story would shift. Not only is the main artistic aim of The Trial not to depict a realistic individual, but I think its real artistic aims would be compromised if it did.
And it's not alone; books as diverse as The Road, Sombrero Fallout, any Agatha Christie murder mystery, Molloy, House Of Leaves, Tristram Shandy, Sum: Tales of The Afterlife and Animal Farm seem to me to be ones whose primary aim isn't to depict character, and indeed ones where a 'fuller' attempt to do so would make the books worse, not better.
None of this should be controversial, or need saying by little ol' me, if it wasn't for the constant attempts by some people writing reviews, articles etc. to judge fiction only by the characterisation yardstick. And books like the above will inevitably come a cropper if they're judged in this way. Don't judge a book by its cover, and don't judge it by its failure to hit targets it wasn't even aiming for anyway...
It riles me, I tell you.
But of course, many books do aim to make their characters as believable as possible (and where they fail in this that should be pointed out). A book like The Catcher In The Rye seems to me a masterpiece of using language to depict character. But you look at the customer reviews for this book, or for any like it, and you'll it. See someone has written something like:
"I don't like the characters in this book; they're so annoying! I didn't care what happened to any of them they were so unsympathetic..."
To which I always want to respond: maybe that's a problem with your internal empathy skills, and not the book! Ever thought of that, buddy boy?
Literature is not, repeat not, a popularity contest, and it's characters don't exist for you to judge whether you 'like' them or not. They are not Facebook pages... Maybe the point of literature (or at least, the character driven kind) is precisely to allow people to empathise with those other than them, to understand how and why people make decisions that we'd never make, in situations we've never been in. To be able to grasp, in an intuitive and intimate way, that even those people we might dislike or fundamentally disagree with might have a reason why they are as they are, and the same fears and doubts underneath as us...
It seems to me, if you read only to validate your own world-view, and throw the book down in some Daily Mail style hissy-fit every time you come across someone different, rather than give your empathy muscles a workout (and empathy is like a muscle, and in some people it seems to be atrophying daily) then you are spectacularly missing the point of books, and missing out.
Okay, rant over.
Secondly, a quick note to to say that a short extract of my novella The Shelter (UK | US), is up today at the splendid Short Story Symposium blog. Check it out - the characters in it are well drawn and really likeable, honest...