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This point can’t be made often enough for me.

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Jan 1Liked by Lincoln Michel

Yes yes yes. Perfectly unimpeachable narrators are yawnsville in memoir too. Self-incrimination is incredibly compelling (and probably crucial) in that genre. Thanks for a great post!

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“Depiction is endorsement” drives me mad with the beta readers. Absolutely maddening.

Honestly, I’m reading more and more self-pubbed and totally unhinged KU books these days because I’m bored with how safe and pandering many trad pub books are.

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Sorry to be dumb, but what does KU stand for?

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Amazon's Kindle Unlimited

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The best unlikeable narrator novel I've read recently was I'm A Fan by Sheena Patel. Lots of POC writers purport to be "not like other POC writers" and proclaim how they'll tell it like it is regardless of what people, especially white people, might think. But most of the time, these writers end up playing it safe, raging against acceptable targets (e.g. an old racist Karen type) while making sure their own flaws are ultimately justified or blamed on greater forces.

But Patel doesn't do that in I'm A Fan and in the novel's story of a 30-something British Asian (Indian, in American terms) woman's obsession with white influencers, the narrator's actions and internal monologue reveal the modern POC's simultaneous resentment and coveting of whiteness, in all its self-interested contradictory goodness. For instance, the narrator has an affair with a successful white male artist and is obsessed with getting into an exclusive relationship with him. She rails against his privileges as a older white male artist star, yet it is precisely that privilege that draws her to him. And it is a lack of that privilege that makes her scorn her actual boyfriend who treats her well but is content to be a potential stay-at-home dad.

I wrote more about it here: https://salieriredemption.substack.com/p/social-media-climbing

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Jan 2Liked by Lincoln Michel

The point of literature is to encounter people who are not like me.

I don't read to learn things I already know.

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YES.

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I completely agree with this, I also love writing deplorable characters

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I agree with you. But the responses from acquiring editors in the U.S. on unlikable characters can be disheartening. (Then again: lit mags LOVE the odd narrator.)

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Great idea!

This brought to mind "All in the Family" (the No. 1 show on TV for the first half of the 70s) and Norman Lear's recent passing. I gave my younger son and his GF Season 1 of it for Xmas, intending for it to blow their minds. So much culture back in the 70s was filtered through a sarcastic prism that's missing now. Which, I guess, shouldn't surprise: If a culture doesn't agree on mores, it can't agree on sarcasm.

Fun fact: In a documentary about AitF, they said that studies of the attitudes of the audience showed that in the near term—like the first two seasons—the audience tended to agree with Archie. But as the show progressed and the character was exposed to challenging opposing viewpoints and situations, so, too, did the audience's overall attitudes become more progressive as well.

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And maybe with art imitating life imitating art (or vice versa?), Archie became a little more progressive by the time Archie Bunker's Place rolled around...

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💯 this. Was literally going to mention Moshfegh and Jackson.

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I'm on a streaming series right now and every note I get back is... "We don't like her, she's too weird, can you make her less of a freak?" And I just love this character so much. I think I need to tell them, "You see, my daughters and I, we lived in Shirley Jackson's old house and something's probably just rubbed off on me?"😂

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I've been struggling with this question for a while, as the protagonist (close third POV) in my novels is a bit arrogant and self-serving and gets himself into all kinds of jams because of it. But he learns as he goes, tries new things, stumbles, and keeps going. I find him endearing because I know him so well, but I worry my readers may find him insufferable. I'm glad to know that there may be hope for him - and for my stories.

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Insufferable is better than boring!

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I'm now trying to imagine a likeable, cuddly Satan in Paradise Lost... Impose likeability on fiction and you have no Humbert Humbert, no Bardamu, no Arturo Bandini, no Chinaski, etc etc. No fiction, really.

Even though I've dedicated the bulk of my life to fiction, I'm clearly out of step with the times if it's true that, as you say, over the last two decades people have been pushing for more "likeable" characters. My guess, though, is that these fair-weather readers are there in every age, tut-tutting and tsk-tsking everywhere they go. The key I suppose is to just avoid them as best one can, as a cow ignores the flies.

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Good essay. However, I would argue that characters can be sympathetic without necessarily being likeable. What makes them tick? How did they arrive at a plainly foolish juncture in their lives, and construct a narrative of the world which is clearly setting them up for failure? Have they been hurt?

Some of the best characters in fiction have been anti-heroes. I'm working on two characters for a sci fi novel. He's an entrepreneurial engineer who does a lot of work for laudable causes. She's a New York Times writer whose father was a local activist and organiser. He's anti-government because when his mother got sick with cancer his father let the home caring for her. Their home was stolen by government through compounded fines for not mowing the lawn (and yes, this really happens, with alarming frequency). She believes her parent's marriage broke up because her mother was selfish. In reality, her father helped thousands of individuals during he course of his life, but failed to achieve any lasting or significant change- and as a consequence became increasingly miserable- pushing his wife away. He has to learn that he is never going to find a woman who is a public spirited altruist without being somewhat political. She has to learn that political crusading is a misuse of her clear writing talent and is no substitute for finding personal happiness.

I think most people write bland characters for fear of pushing their readers away. It's certainly true that most segments of the media landscape cater to specific audiences, but this doesn't necessarily hold true for fiction writers. Personally, I dislike world building which aims to 'educate', but I can certainly get behind characters who are unlikeable or possess really nasty character flaws. The key observation is that most people are 'justified' by their own inner monologue. It's what creates tyrants, monsters and powerful people who believe they have the right to rule. Most people are heroes in their own imagination. Hell, even psychopaths and sociopaths- both almost completely incapable of ever feeling empathy towards other human beings- believe that when they hurt or betray others they are doing them a favour, by disabusing them of their naivety.

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Thanks for showing me I"m on the right path!

I'm currently working on the "voice" for my narrator, and "weird little freak" would be one description. The problem I'm tackling right now is, how to you let their (ahem) freak flag fly? I'm not sure it's as straightforward as it seems. (In fact, it's one of the top concerns for me with my WIP...) It's a ragged line between "weird" and "boring", where too much either way spoils the soup. I think the line is ragged too in the fact that you need to lean toward the "boring" in some parts and accentuate the "weird" in others.

But hey, if writing a novel was easy, everyone would do it -- right?

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One of the best autofiction works I've read is Dandy in the Underworld: An Unauthorized Autobiography by Sebastian Horsley. He was a flawed person, but an incredibly self-aware and frank narrator, and it's fascinating. You end up liking him a lot.

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