Sharon's post on Wednesday was wonderful. A week or so ago in a post I said I'd like to discuss unlikeable/amoral/immoral central characters, including those who seem to triumph. We’re not talking here about pointless novels, but those in which the central character is not a hero in the ethical/moral sense, at least through most of the novel.
In the following points, I realize that my descriptions for the sake of brevity are simplistic and inadequate, so please bear with me for the sake of a basis of discussion. Here are some examples of the type of main character I’d like to discuss.
1) I know I gush about a lot about the quality of the writing in The Great Gatsby, but its central character, Jay Gatsby, is someone whose yearnings for the unattainable Daisy make you forget that he probably is a criminal who has made his money just to impress her and to convince her to commit adultery with him. His love is all-encompassing but one-dimensional, yet when he dies, it is devastating.
2) Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella I re-read last week for the first time since college. In it, a narrator describes a man he admires who died with the words, “The horror!” The narrator, who is fascinated by this man’s exploits and god-like colonialist power, feels treacherous in lying to the depraved man’s fiancée by telling her that his dying words were her name.
I also read "The Snows of Kilmanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway. What a tour de force description of a man who has used people (specifically women) his whole life to finance his writing career, which he realizes as he is dying, was focused on unworthy subjects when he could have written about the really interesting people of his life, such as the poor. But the real cheat of Hemingway (from the Christian point of view) is that this man doesn’t really regret (as 2 Corinthians 7:10 defines regret) or repent of these things. In fact, he would go back and do his self-focused deeds just the same if he’d been given the chance. He even scorns and patronizes the dogged love of his wife – yet dies peacefully believing he is going to the place of the gods.
Another book I read recently was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. Its protagonist is a suffering person but a rapist and someone who has unfairly treated and judged many people in his life. The reader cringes at how he relates to others through almost the entire book. When he does act morally it’s often because he feels guilty or wants to accomplish something. However, he comes to realize how to forgive and how to achieve wholeness, or “roundness,” as the book puts it. I was glad I stuck with this man’s story, someone who was often paralyzed by ambivalence and his own victimization.
So the point of all this is not a series of book reports. This is a blog about writing.
We saw last week that we were unable as a group (NovelMatters ladies and those who commented) to cite an example of a Christian book in which the protagonist/ending allowed for the triumph of evil or injustice. And yet we have to assume that those *“non-Christian” books such as I listed put the burden on the reader to step back and say, “No, these characters are not people I’d like to live in the same house with, but my distance from them and my own moral compass tell me to assess them and see that they are a lesson in how not to live my own life.”
My question is this: What are the benefits and risks for a Christian writer who wants to tackle the daunting task of creating a non-heroic main character?
*I realize that Wally Lamb is a Christian writer whose writing is superlative. However, as I recall, I Know This Much is True (the only book I have read by Lamb) mentions Christianity only peripherally (one character decides to return to church, there is talk of Catholicism as a cultural issue) and -– even more significant -- some of the protagonist’s final understandings come through insights he derives from Native American Religion and Hinduism. The protagonist does achieve catharsis through forgiveness, but that quality is not exclusively a Christian trait; nor does the novel tie forgiveness to Christianity. (If you’ve read the book and want to argue my conclusions, I’m all ears. But first answer the other question, please.)