Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):
Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)
Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.
Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:
tales of crime detection
tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.
Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)
Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds HarperCollins, 2017 ISBN 978–0–06–266134–0
Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.
The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.
And then she hears a gunshot…
Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:
That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.
(2) Police Procedural
A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.
This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.
First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.
Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.
(4) Science Fiction
Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.
As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?
This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.
Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.
In its most basic meaning, setting in fiction refers to the time and place in which the action of a novel or short story occurs. In some works the setting isn’t much more than a few simple references to time and place in order to ground the work in reality. In other instances setting takes on more importance and plays a major role in how the work affects the reader.
For ease of explanation I’ve labeled some ways in which setting functions in the following fictional works. You may come up with other labels that you prefer. But whatever terminology you use, the important aspect to remember is to notice how the setting contributes to the novel or story’s meaning.
In some novels the setting is so integral to the story’s effectiveness that it becomes a character in its own right. In this book 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish walks all over Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1984. Lillian worked in the advertising department of R.H. Macy’s department store and ascended to the top of this emerging profession. She was also a published poet with a modest amount of fame. As she walks all over her beloved Manhattan, she remembers both her own life experiences and the city in which they occurred. By the time she arrives back home, she has narrated not only her life story but also a tribute to the city that never sleeps in all its historic grandeur.
This novel is set in San Francisco—but not the charming city by the Bay with its quaint cable cars and magnificent vistas. No, in this city, soon-to-be-divorced Dr. Eldon Chance lives a life “wherein each day seemed at risk of being even more dimly lit than the one before it” (p. 7). A recent fire in the East Bay hills has left the area covered in ash: “Cars were made to appear uniform in color. It lay thick in the corners of things like drifts of dirty snow” (p. 9).
Much of the novel’s action takes place at night, in a dark world of deceit and criminal activity. This is the San Francisco of fog, mist, and nighttime crime, where thoughts and desires scuttle off down the darkest paths and then emerge from the depths to bite us. By inverting the typical postcard image of San Francisco, Nunn underscores the dark bleakness of the life Eldon Chance chooses to live.
Setting as Metaphor
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe 1839
In this gothic masterpiece an unnamed first-person narrator approaches the decaying family mansion of his childhood friend Roderick Usher. The narrator has been summoned there by a letter from Roderick, whom he has not seen for many years, to help allay a mental malady.
The narrator reads with Roderick in an attempt to lighten Roderick’s gloom. The body of Roderick’s twin sister has been placed in the family vault, but Roderick believes she is still alive. When the sister appears before Roderick and the narrator in her bloodstained shroud, brother and sister fall dead together.
The narrator quickly leaves. As he rides away on his horse, he turns for a final look at the family mansion:
The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feel closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
In his comprehensive analysis of Poe’s works, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Doubleday, 1972), Daniel Hoffman calls the House of Usher (not the story, but the building) “no house at all but a profound and intricate metaphor of the self” (p. 302). Hoffman describes the story as a compendium “of nearly all of Poe’s obsessional motifs, here joined together in a dazzling, garish, and intricately consistent pattern of concentric meanings” (p. 303).
However, one need not examine all of Poe’s writing to understand the point of this story, in which the house is a metaphor of dark family secrets and signifies the disintegration of the individuals who live there as well as of the family line and its dwelling.
The personification of a creepy old mansion or castle is a common characteristic of gothic novels such as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Setting as Plot Necessity
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier 1951
Philip Ashley, age 24, narrates this first-person story of obsession. Philip was raised from early childhood by his older cousin, Ambrose, as heir to the Ashley estate. After Ambrose travels to Italy to check on some property, Philip receives a letter from Ambrose telling of his marriage to a woman named Rachel. As communication from Ambrose becomes less frequent and more mysterious, Philip decides that he must go to Italy to check on Ambrose himself.
Philip has lived his entire life on the Ashley estate, near a small village on the isolated coast of Cornwall in England. His experience of the world outside his home has been limited, and this novel amounts to his own telling of his coming-of-age story. Philip’s isolated living situation is a necessary part of the setting because his naiveté is central to the story.
The time of the setting is just as important as the location. Nowhere does the novel specify a year, but as Philip weighs the decision of whether to travel to Italy to check up on Ambrose, he notes that going himself will be more expedient than sending a letter. Although the trip to Italy by ship will take three weeks, sending a letter, which would travel on the same ship, would require three weeks plus another three weeks for a reply to arrive back in Cornwall. This setting before the arrival of any type of quick communication is crucial to the story because in Italy Philip learns a bit about Rachel, even though he doesn’t meet her. This information about Rachel feeds his speculation about her and her possible motivation for marrying Ambrose.
To say any more would spoil the pleasure of reading this novel. I love a good first-person narrator, and Daphne du Maurier is one of the best writers at creating such a character. Philip’s story requires the isolating setting of both time and place that contributes to his initiation into adulthood.
The best historical fiction aims to recreate the feel of both the time and place in which the action occurs. In works of historical fiction, setting takes center stage to communicate not only the physical artifacts but also the social and cultural milieu in which the characters live their stories.
In Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns recreates life in a small town in rural Georgia at the beginning of the twentieth century. The main character is Will Tweedy, age 14, grandson of E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the town’s general store. As the novel opens, Grandfather Blakeslee, whose wife died only three weeks earlier, shocks the townsfolk by marrying one of his employees, Miss Love Simpson. His failure to live out the expected year of mourning offends his neighbors and shames his family. Furthermore, Miss Simpson is only half his age and—heaven forbid!—a Yankee.
In claiming the right to live his life as he sees fit, Grandfather Blakeslee becomes a spokesperson for the social changes beginning to chip away at the density of long-held Southern traditions in 1906. A concrete representation of the same phenomenon is the arrival of the automobile, which is about to expand the town’s world and drive it out of the old isolated world of the Confederacy into modern times. Cold Sassy Tree is a coming-of-age novel in which young Will Tweedy enters adulthood just as his hometown grows into the expanding world of a new century.
Setting in Speculative Fiction
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The term speculative fiction encompasses fantasy and science fiction, works of literature that take place in an imagined world. In a process called world building, authors of speculative fiction create a world whose setting contributes to the work’s meaning. As in historical fiction, setting takes center stage in speculative fiction.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a good example of how setting functions in speculative fiction. In these works the author must build a complete world and communicate the details of that world to the reader as necessary throughout the book (or series). Before writing the series Rowling had created a complete and detailed outline of how the wizarding world worked, but if she had started out by explaining that world, she never would have gotten around to the story at the novels’ heart—and readers wouldn’t have kept reading. Rowling skillfully develops the reader’s understanding of the world at Hogwart’s by incorporating details as the story progresses, giving us tidbits as we need them to understand the significance of the characters’ actions and decisions.
It would be fair to say that Harry Potter’s world is so crucial to the series that the setting becomes a character in its own right, as it does in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. However, both of these examples illustrate how setting exists not just for its own sake, but rather in service to the human story at the novel’s center.
Genre can be liberating, in an artistic sense. To follow and break the rules at the same time can lead to moments of true serendipity. For me, it has elevated the concept of form, the actual structure of the novel, to become the most crucial element, because as in architecture, form follows function… . In effect, the conventions of genre have opened up new vistas of form to explore, new ways of telling a story that demand much from me as an author.
In this brilliant novel David Mitchell uses intertwined stories to demonstrate how individual people and their fates are connected across space and time. The literary genres featured here include autobiography, philosophical inquiry, mystery, and speculative fiction in a narrative framework that circles back on itself to create the paradox of discrete moments within the vast expanse of human experience and history.
The novel tells six stories presented in the following order:
This narrative structure underscores the theme of interconnection of all humanity across time and cultures.
2. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Usually in chronological narratives the most dramatic point happens somewhere between the midpoint and the end. But in this novel the high drama occurs near the beginning: On a foggy summer night 11 people board a private jet on Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. As the plane takes off, “none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea” (p. 11). The only survivors are a struggling painter, Scott Burroughs, and the four-year-old son of the media mogul who chartered the plane.
An investigation ensues, lead by several law enforcement and safety agencies and the manufacturer of the jet. The remainder of the novel comprises chapters alternating between the current investigation and the backstories of the people on the plane.
Hawley’s structure for this novel reminds me of the television series Motive, a summer series aired by American television network ABC between 2013 and 2016. Each episode opened with a brief look at two people, the victim and the killer, living their lives. The remainder of the show detailed the detectives’ investigation of the murder as they tried to determine the motive and identify the killer. The key to solving the crime lay in finding exactly when, where, and why the victim’s and the killer’s paths crossed. The examination of the crash in Hawley’s novel proceeds the same way as investigators examine the lives of the passengers to figure out which one of them had a reason to sabotage the plane.
I’ve read a number of descriptions of this novel that say the climax, the plane crash, occurs at the beginning. But I don’t agree with that. The crash isn’t the book’s climax; as dramatic as the crash is, it’s merely the catalyst for the action that comes after it. In other words, the plane crash is a subplot that provides drama and suspense. The main story is Scott Burroughs’s rescue of the boy and what he does afterwards. The narrative structure suggests this interpretation by dispensing with the plane crash early on and focusing later on Scott’s story.
3. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Henry and Clare are passionately in love and vow to hold on to each other despite Henry’s chrono-displacement disorder, a genetic condition that causes him to travel through time whenever he’s highly stressed. Henry has no control over when he will be thrown into time or what time he will land in. Throughout the novel the current Henry lands in many different time periods of Clare’s life.
Because of the nature of Henry’s condition, the book moves around in time with no obvious ordering. This seeming lack of a narrative structure can make reading this novel difficult. I found, though, that I didn’t need to try to force the various meetings between Henry and Clare into a strict order. Much of the pleasure of this novel lies in just watching how the two maintain their relationship throughout their lives.
4. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
There are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the story. This dysfunctional-family novel—which is developing into quite a subgenre—employs an intriguing narrative technique to give several family members their say.
The novel centers around the marriage of Ingrid and Gil Coleman. The two met when Ingrid took a university writing course with the famous novelist Gil Coleman. The two became lovers and got married when Ingrid got pregnant just before the start of her final year at university. People warned Ingrid that Gil was a notorious womanizer, but Ingrid insisted she was in love and wanted to get married. Over the course of their 16-year marriage the couple had two daughters, Nan and Flora.
As the book opens, Ingrid has been missing for almost 12 years. She went out for an ocean swim one day and never came home. Nan, now in her late 20s, still harbors resentment over her mother’s disappearance, since Nan was forced into the role of mothering Flora, her younger sister by five and a half years. Flora has never accepted her mother’s death and still hopes that she will return one day. When Gil, now an old man, takes a bad fall, Nan summons Flora home to help care for their father. Before his fall, Gil had been searching through the thousands of books in his house because he discovered that Ingrid had left letters about their life together hidden in some of them during the month before she disappeared.
Those letters are Ingrid’s way of telling “my truth” (p. 17). There are three time periods at play in the novel:
1976 on, from the beginning of Gil and Ingrid’s life together
June 2 through July 2, 1992, when Gil has been away from the family for months and Ingrid writes the letters detailing her life with him
2004, the present, while Nan and Flora care for the dying Gil
In each of her letters Ingrid implores Gil, who has been away for months, to come home to his family. She then continues the narration of their life together. Ingrid’s letters therefore cover the first and second time periods, while the novel narrates the present in third person. These third-person sections present the lives of Gil, Nan, and Flora. Chapters alternate between the present and Ingrid’s letters, given in sequence.
As the book opens, Gil has just found Ingrid’s last letter. We see this letter again, and finally get to read it, near the end of the book. In this way the narrative structure provides closure for Ingrid and her story.
5. All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
Ten years ago Nic Farrell left her small hometown of Cooley Ridge, North Carolina, when her best friend disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Now known as Nicolette, she works as a counselor in Philadelphia and is engaged to a lawyer when her brother summons her home to help make decisions about their father, who’s in a care facility experiencing early signs of dementia.
The trip home, to the past she has purposely left behind, unsettles her. The situation intensifies when another young woman vanishes under circumstances similar to those of her friend’s disappearance. And suddenly Nic must try to find out what happened 10 years ago if she’s to understand what is going on now. Facing that necessity requires her to dig deeply into all the conflicting emotions and buried secrets about herself, her missing friend, and the people in the small, tight-knit community of Cooley Ridge.
But accepting buried secrets of the past is difficult, so, after an introductory section, Nic narrates her first-person account of her two-week investigation the only way she can make herself face it: backwards. As she explains near the end of her story:
I have to come at it from the side, grazing pieces here and there. Not looking it directly in the eye. I’ve never told it before. This is the only way I know how.
I’m getting there. (p. 333)
*Lee Irby, who teaches history at Eckerd College in Florida, is the author of the historical mysteries 7,000 Clams, The Up and Up, and Unreliable.
Have you ever wanted to yell at someone, “If you hadn’t done __________, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now”?
Actions have consequences. And often one action produces a consequence that requires another action, and so on—and on.
This cause-and-effect pattern works in fiction just as it does in life. A fictional character wants something and takes some action toward getting it. That action produces a new situation that requires a second action, and so on. The plot, as they say, thickens until the fictional world becomes quite complicated. Plot is chronological, starting at the beginning and progressing to the end.
But telling a story in chronological order often is not the most interesting or dramatic way to present it. Authors know that readers want to be pulled into a story right away and that if they don’t write openings that do this, readers will pick up another book instead. (See 5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction.)
Authors therefore commonly look for some place well along in the plot sequence that will catch readers’ interest. They throw us right into the middle of the action, probably at the point where the main character’s companion is about to scream, “If you hadn’t done __________, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now!”
Once readers have been drawn into the story by an effective opening, they have to learn about the earlier plot points to understand fully the significance of what’s happening. More and more television shows now start dramatically, with a scene such as a shoot-out, then move into a sequence labeled something like “24 hours earlier” to fill viewers in. Authors must devise some similar technique for giving readers the background information they need. Both in books and in TV shows the earlier plot points—everything that occurred before the dramatic opening—are called the backstory. A novel’s narrative structure is the order in which the author presents the various events that make up the plot’s chronological timeline.
In identifying a novel’s narrative structure it’s often helpful to think of the point at the beginning, when we are thrown into the action, as the novel’s present time. Passages that fill in some of the backstory are called flashbacks because they often appear as memories, when a character’s brain flashes back to something that occurred earlier. An effective narrative structure allows us to keep track of what happened earlier—the backstory—and what is happening right now and into the future.
You may sometimes see the terms plot and narrative structure used interchangeably, although technically they are different. If we criticize a character’s action as being impossible or incredible, we are criticizing one of the novel’s plot elements. But when we complain that a novel didn’t grab our interest or that the story dragged, we are probably talking about narrative structure rather than plot. An effective narrative structure generally keeps the story moving by alternating sections of backstory with actions occurring in the novel’s present.
Example: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
I’ve chosen this novel to illustrate the effect of narrative structure for two reasons:
It’s an apt illustration.
Because the key plot element occurs in the first sentence, I can discuss it without giving away anything that would spoil your reading of the novel.
Here are the novel’s first two sentences:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
Notice how that first sentence immediately captures the reader’s interest: Who is Lydia? How and why has she died?
But notice, too, how the second sentence shifts the focus just slightly: Who are “they”? Why don’t they know this yet? When, why, and how will they find out? And what will happen when they find out?
In this novel Lydia Lee is a high school student in a small Ohio town in the 1970s. She’s the middle child in her family. Her father, James Lee, is the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, and her mother, Marilyn, gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor to get married and raise a family. As a typical teenager, Lydia wants nothing more than to fit in at school, but her Chinese ethnicity makes her stand out in their small community. The only people who can understand her at all are her older brother and her younger sister.
Everything I Never Told You isn’t just about Lydia’s death. It’s about Lydia’s death in the context of her family’s lives, and the novel’s narrative structure creates that context. Imagine how different the novel would be if Lydia were to tell her own story. But that’s point of view—and that’s another essay.
Many contemporary writers are experimenting with narrative structure as a way to help shape their book’s meaning. My next article will look at a few of those books.
At a book group gathering a few months back a man opened the discussion with the comment, “I didn’t like this book because I just couldn’t like any of the characters.” I don’t even remember what that month’s book was because my mind took off with that comment. That was certainly not the first time I’d heard it in a book group. And if you frequent any book sites on the internet, you’ll find some variation of it all over the place.
I’ve never understood this comment. Before I heard it for the first time, the consideration of whether I liked or disliked a literary character had never even crossed my mind. To like a book, I don’t need to like its characters. But I do need to understand them.
Since the issue of the likability of fictional characters comes up periodically in book-discussion circles, among both readers and writers, let’s take a look of what some people have had to say about it. Then I’ll give you my take on this topic.
Back in 2010 Laura Miller, in a discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, wrote in Salon:
All of this raises a question I’ve been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen’s (and many other authors’) characters, which is that they are “unlikable.” I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, said in a 2013 interview with Publishers Weekly:
As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”
She says that reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in high school taught her that fiction can express negative emotions, can say “unsayable things.” But at that time all the books she loved that did this were by and about men: “it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.”
And when the interviewer asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in The Woman Upstairs], would you?” Messud answered, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Then she added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”
In response, author Jennifer Weiner amped up the discussion in I Like Likable Characters for Slate when she chose to focus on the dichotomy between “chick lit”—relatable women characters written by women writers for women readers—and “literary novels” (Weiner’s term). She suggests Messud is something of a snob in her insistence that she writes books on the serious side of the popular/literary dichotomy. Weiner takes this distinction seriously:
I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously.
And she has a solution for the whole issue:
Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?
Kelly Braffet, author of Save Yourself and other novels, brings a refreshing sense of insight to the issue in Quit talking about likable characters!. She says she learned in high school that she doesn’t like everyone she meets and that she doesn’t expect everyone to like her. She also admits that even people she likes can become annoying, but “even then, an annoying person can still say interesting things. Their very annoyingness can be interesting.”
Braffet defines unlikable characters this way:
Unlikable characters, to me, are those who do the wrong thing because it’s easier or more fun; or, maybe even to a greater extent, those who have no idea what the right thing is, and have never really stopped to think about it.
what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above.
Koa Beck took to the pages of The Atlantic in Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable (December 2015) to celebrate that year’s crop of “novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff.”
In these books—a list that includes Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train—says Beck:
These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures. Perhaps most refreshingly, these novels aren’t so much heralding a new age of female-centric literature as they’re building on a much older English-language tradition of works about complex women.
Perhaps the tendency to designate characters as either likable or unlikable has come from our human tendency to dichotomize, to see things and people in terms of either/or. We want them to be either good or bad, likable or unlikable, not a messy mixture of both good and bad traits. We categorize people this way because it’s easy. Once we decide which side of an “either/or” mind-set individuals fall on, we no longer have to make the effort to get to know them better.
But the beauty of reading fiction is that it can help us overcome this tendency to categorize people by introducing us to complex characters who, like us, are partly likable and partly unlikable. In fiction we get to meet way more people than we meet in real life. In fiction, we become acquainted with all kinds of people, many of whom we probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life. We get to know these characters and then walk away from them after we reach the bottom of the final page. One of the reasons why I read fiction is to learn about human nature. By getting to know other people, both real and fictional, I learn more about myself.
In fiction, we can safely associate with people we don’t necessarily like. Reading fiction allows us to experience people and situations we’d never encounter in our everyday lives. This is why I don’t need to like fictional characters.
But I do need to understand them. I judge a novel by the strength of its characterization, by how well the author has developed complex, believable characters from whose choices, decisions, and actions I can learn. When I read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, I didn’t think about how unlikable the main character, Nora, is. I thought about how her life has made her desperate for human relationship, for friendship. Yes, I cringed at some of the things she did and the thoughts she expressed, but I understood her thoughts and actions. The Woman Upstairs is a good novel not because I like Nora, but because I understand how, in the context of her life, she does what she does.
And characters like Nora, who share the deliciously messy stew of both good and bad tendencies and emotions that comprise the human psyche, are not only the best teachers of human nature. They are also the most interesting characters to read about. The unreliable narrators, the ordinary people forced to confront extraordinary circumstances—these are the characters who keep me turning the pages.
Maybe this is why I like mysteries so much, because they probe the darker recesses of the human psyche. A good mystery makes us understand—certainly not like or even condone, but understand—why people do what they do. Often mysteries take us inside the heads of both a criminal and an investigator. Even if we’re able to figure out whodunit before the end, watching the investigation is as satisfying as watching the crime.
I’ve learned that, when I start a new novel, I should be careful not to pass judgment on the characters too early. I need to give the author time to turn each character in the light of experience so that I can see the reflections off all the character’s facets. If the author is very good at the writing craft, I may be meeting some new fictional characters who have something to teach me. In that case, the question of whether I like or dislike the characters evaporates.
Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”
A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.
Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:
A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.
A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.
Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.
Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.
Emma by Jane Austen
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.
In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.
Mind Prey by John Sandford
The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.
Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.
A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.
The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton
What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.
Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”
I love reading mysteries because a well written mystery delves deeply into the depths of the human heart and psyche. I’m in partial agreement with Beth O’Brien, who says:
For me, the mystery books to read are personal. I want to know what happens to those directly affected. The family, the friends, the victims themselves. The general fiction section is where you’ll find the kind of mysteries I like.
She had me right up until that last sentence. While it’s true that some very good mysteries appear on the general fiction shelves, more often the best mysteries are found right where you’d expect them to be, on the mystery shelves. The main reason for this is that, once a writer has written a mystery and been categorized as a mystery writer, most book stores and libraries will continue to put all that author’s subsequent books in the same spot.
Like O’Brien, I don’t care for cozy mysteries (the kind in which, if the mystery were a play, the crime would occur off stage). And I’m not a big fan of the drawing room mystery, in which the sleuth, whether professional or amateur, gathers all the possible suspects in the drawing room and explains why each, one by one, isn’t the killer; the last person left is therefore the guilty party, and the sleuth proceeds to explain how the killer did the deed and how the clever detective figured the whole complicated mess out.
And I don’t like horror. I recently read two novels that were described as psychological thrillers that made me realize exactly what my definition of horror is: literature that uses a supernatural or inhuman phenomenon to deliver the promised twist at the end. (I’m not going to name those two novels so as not to spoil their endings for anyone who hasn’t read them yet.) It’s human motivation and interaction that I’m interested in, not goblins, demons, or other malevolent but external forces.
Finally, O’Brien says that she doesn’t like procedurals or courtroom dramas, and I disagree with her there as well. Procedurals, which pit a detective (who may or may not be a police investigator) against a bad guy or gal, frequently provide a look into the minds of both sides of that human equation. Courtroom dramas do the same, and often at the same time examine how the legal system works and how it affects human behavior.
Ultimately, though, O’Brien and I agree on the most basic appeal of a mystery. For her, it’s “about the people, the character development,” and I second that. The best mysteries are not pure plot, with one extreme event following another, careening off in seemingly endless directions. My purpose in reading a mystery isn’t to see what wild, unforeseen surprise the writer can throw at me. I read mysteries to learn about why people do what they do, how they interact with others, and what drives them. The best mysteries display as much character development as plot.
Here, then, are five mysteries that both interested and enlightened me. And you might want to click on the link to O’Brien’s article, where she offers five more.
A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
In the winter of 1963 in England, serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady began killing children. Val McDermid uses this historical event as the starting point for her novel, in which a 13-year-old girl, Alison Carter, disappears in a small, rural English community distrustful of outsiders. The investigation falls to George Bennett, a young, newly promoted inspector. Although Alison’s body was never found, someone was convicted and executed for her murder. Despite this seemingly successful conclusion, the case continued to haunt Bennett for the rest of his career.
Decades later, Bennett tells the story of this case to journalist Catherine Heathcote. But just as Heathcote’s book on the case is about to be published, Bennett calls to tell her to stop. When he tells her he has new information but refuses to explain, Heathcote undertakes her own investigation of the case.
I’ve chosen this one of McDermid’s novels because it has stuck with me for years, but almost any of her books is worth reading, particularly her stand-alone novels. This book demonstrates how effective a procedural mystery can be.
Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old real estate agent, is about to close up an open house at the end of the day when a van pulls up. It’s been a slow day, and she hopes this last visitor might just be the buyer she needs. Instead, the van holds a psychopath who kidnaps Annie and holds her captive in a remote cabin for a year before she manages to escape. (This all becomes clear right at the beginning of the book, so I’m not giving anything away here.)
Annie narrates most of the book as recordings of her therapy sessions after her escape. The last part describes her efforts to re-integrate back into society after her terrible experience. As harrowing as this sounds, Still Missing is a story of survival and resilience that I still think about now, several years after reading it.
”M” Is for Malice by Sue Grafton
This novel, from the middle of Grafton’s alphabet mysteries featuring PI Kinsey Millhone, is one of the best. When a family patriarch dies and leaves his estate to be divided equally among his four sons, three of them hire Kinsey to locate their long-lost brother, the black sheep of the family, who has been gone for 20 years.
Kinsey is a good investigator, so find him she does. However, after witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between the other three brothers, she advises the prodigal son to consider carefully whether he wants to return to the fold with three men who would obviously rather split the inheritance three ways than four.
”M” Is for Malice aptly demonstrates how deftly Sue Grafton creates credible, complex characters and how the mind of an investigator can be just as compelling as the mind of a villain.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were childhood friends in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston. But one day a strange car pulled up while they were out on the street and tried to pick them up. Sean and Jimmy didn’t get in, but Dave did. Dave later returned, but something had happened to him that drove him away from his friends and changed his life forever.
Years later, Dave Boyle is accused of killing Jimmy Marcus’s daughter, and Sean Devine is the police officer in charge of the murder investigation. This character-driven crime novel examines childhood, friendship, community, and the power of secrets. All the characters are sharply and complexly drawn in a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
There’s a good movie, but read the book first.
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
Mia Dennett, in her early 20s, is a well-liked art teacher at an alternative school in Chicago. She’s the daughter of a prominent but cold and demanding judge and a socialite mother. Mia’s family can’t understand why she chooses to live in the city instead of in their large home in a much safer suburban neighborhood.
When Mia’s not-too-steady boyfriend fails to meet her at a bar in the city one night, Mia leaves the bar with a stranger who calls himself Colin. A notorious criminal has hired Colin to kidnap Mia for him, but Colin soon decides to hide Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota instead of turning her over to his employer. Mia’s disappearance isn’t discovered until Monday morning, when she doesn’t show up for work. Most of the narration shifts between several point-of-view characters—Mia’s mother, Eve; Gabe Hoffman, who’s in charge of the police investigation; and Colin—as the search continues with very few leads.
Such use of multiple points of view characterizes many works of contemporary fiction and reflects the fact that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the events. Novels that present several points of view show readers how different characters perceive the significance of events and how they interact with other characters. This approach to storytelling allows writers and readers to explore fully the deliciously messy and complex workings of human nature.
This piece is a translation of a speech given by Swedish novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard on receiving a German literary award. Here the writer explains how reading fiction helps us to understand humanity in general by focusing our awareness on individual people.
What characterizes our age is “the sheer volume of images of the world” that allow us to see, almost instantly, an event that occurs anywhere on the planet: natural disasters, plane crashes, acts of terrorism. We see these images as we go about our day-to-day lives, and usually “we keep these different levels of reality apart:
Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner.
Our lives are so bound up with the media:
which by its very nature creates remoteness, its narrative structures rendering every event equal, every occurrence identical, thereby dissolving the particular, the singular, the unique, in that way lying to us, or, put differently, fictionalizing our reality.
But occasionally “the two levels of reality converge and become one.”
And in our humanity, “there is a vanishing point.” It’s the point at which our perspective of the world shifts from definite to indefinite and back again. We see images of the mass of humanity, not of individual people. But novels provide the opportunity for the opposite movement:
if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind. This establishing of proximity to another self is characteristic of the novel.
The way in which the world of a novel takes shape in the reader’s mind “is special to the form.” In showing us “value of the particular and the singular,” novels act differently than the media, which push us to see humanity as a whole rather than as a collection of individual people.
Lorin Stein is editor at The Paris Review, one of the world’s most respected literary journals. He has compiled an anthology, The Unprofessionals, of short fiction from the magazine that focuses on the work of a “new generation of writers under 40.” Most of these writers’ names will be unfamiliar to readers, but, according to Stein, their work represents “the best new writing he’s seeing today,” work that “locates a role for literary writing in our media-saturated 21st century.”
In this interview with Joe Fassler for The Atlantic, Stein describes this new kind of writing:
The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say “I.” Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience.
As an example of this new kind of writing Stein cites Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which was published in The Paris Review in 1989. In this kind of fiction, “the payoff here is emotional, not intellectual—I can feel it even if I can’t articulate it.” The story carries a meaning “that evades logical understanding but hits us in the heart.”
The key to the effectiveness of this type of writing, Stein says, is “you have to believe in the voice itself. The narrator has to exist as a steady reliable fact.” More specifically:
we’ve become interested in the fiction of the speaker. Interested, suspicious, aware. We might ask—in a way that our grandparents wouldn’t have asked—why someone is sitting down at the keyboard at a Starbucks and doing this? It’s no longer given why someone would tell a story on paper, or onscreen. It’s become a troubling question.
This type of fictional narrator has a dual nature:
When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about. You don’t have to make sense in quite the same way.
In the works in the anthology Stein sees a new realism, “the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.”