Can writers still attract readers if the main character is not admirable? Can readers enjoy a book in which the protagonist is flawed?
A recent podcast from ‘The Bookshelf’ (ABC RN March 15 2019) addresses this issue. Kate Evans and others review ‘Adèle’ by the French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani, There’s a lot not to like about the main character, Adèle: she’s sex-addicted, lacks self-control, and is indiscriminate in her choice of partners.
A thread on Twitter asks why it’s mostly women who find it hard to engage with a book if they don’t like the female protagonist. Do women identify with the heroine, then feel let down by her behaviour? Whereas men take a more objective view? When asked by a writer if readers or reviewers say your main character is unlikable, many women authors, including myself, answered in the affirmative. ‘My male protagonists get much more love’ tweets one author.
Yet so many heroines in literary history have been flawed: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, even Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s novel ‘Gone With the Wind’. People have read and loved these books for decades. Perhaps the writer’s ability to show compassion to her flawed character, suspending judgement, is what makes these books last. I have tried to do this in ‘Capriccio: A Novel’, by portraying Assia as a disturbed human being, caught in a web of events not of her own making, but for which she continues to be blamed. I’m reminded of the sad story of Wallis Simpson, a woman who’s been maligned through history, yet who was also dragged into a maelstrom of national scandal against her will. “Cherished by her friends, she was a woman written off by a cunning, powerful British establishment who sought to destroy and diminish her.” Quoted from an article on the biography of Wallis Simpson by Anna Pasternak, this could well be said of my protagonist, Assia, as portrayed in Hughes’s poem, ‘Shibboleth’.
‘That obnoxious women can be antiheroes in literature feels like a revelation to me, after years of reading about likeable men – our interior lives can be as ugly as they can be beautiful, and that makes for addictive reading too.’ (Good weekend, 9 February 2019, from an article by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen)
In ‘Capriccio: A Novel’ I have tried to portray Esther (Assia) truthfully, as she was, with all her flaws, insecurities, and frailties. Only two readers that I know of, have expressed impatience or disapproval of Assia. Both of these readers were women. Interestingly, my most fervent reviews have been from men. Perhaps we women are too judgemental of each other?
I’ve received some wonderful reviews from readers who shared their insights with me, and are happy for me to reproduce them here:
I just finished reading “Capriccio”. This truly is a beautiful book, written so eloquently. I usually start reading another book as soon as I’m finished with the one I’m reading, but after reading “Capriccio “, I’m not ready to do so. I want to sit back and reflect on the beauty of this story even though I feel sad after reading it. Thank you so much for writing Assia’s story.- Silvana Costanza
I think this is a fine evocation with barely a false note. I was fascinated by this work and its crisp style. Let me reiterate: I believe you have an interesting and world-wide engaging book here. I think you’ll ring a bell. Thomas Keneally
Combining thorough research with captivating prose Davis creates a piece of historical fiction that you absolutely cannot afford to miss. The Bookshop, Darwin.
You have certainly achieved beautifully and in an unbiased way a great tribute to Assia. It is also amazing that in general Ted Hughes seems to have escaped real criticism. – Eunice Condon
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