I confess. I watched soap operas growing up – in the kitchen with my mom while we watched the maid peel and chop vegetables for dinner. All My Children, General Hospital and One Life to Live. Luke and Laura. Erica Kane. Vicky Buchanan and her many alternate personalities.
As any soap fan will tell you, the appeal of these shows is not the “good” characters – the sweet, the gullible and the law-abiding. It’s the plotters and the schemers, the seekers of revenge and the lovers of injustice, the jealous and the impulsive and the just plain loony – they’re the ones who draw us in. We care more for the tragically flawed than the morally upright, and we tune in to see just how far they’ll push the limits of their outrageous behavior.
So too in literature. In February, The New Yorker published an essay about Edith Wharton written by Jonathan Franzen. The piece [which has since been slammed as “mean-spirited” and “uninformed” because of its treatment of Wharton] points out that we root for unlikeable protagonists in fiction because the author has given the character “a powerful desire”. We, the readers, take on that desire as our own, and keep reading.
That’s part of the story, but there’s another important element. Honesty. Naked, relentless emotional honesty. There are writers who use language beautifully, and there are authors who are expert storytellers, but the books that stay with us are written by those unafraid to tell the truth, about themselves and their characters.
The Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn hook us, not because the main character was raped by his father, but because of their magnificent portrayal of narcissism, drug addiction and self-delusion. Here again, it’s the weaknesses and the failings, both the writers’ and the characters’, that perfect the character. St. Aubyn has said, about these outstanding autobiographical novels, “The whole Melrose series is an attempt to tell the truth, and is based on the idea that there is some salutary or liberating power in telling the truth.”
From Luke and Laura to Patrick Melrose. That’s quite a neat jump, don’t you think? We need something in the middle, like the funny, fabulous David Sedaris. The reason his books are consistent bestsellers? His portrayal of himself as an egotistical, inept pinhead.
Sedaris has been criticized for exaggerating the truth in order to make his essays entertaining, but the heart of his appeal is that he skewers himself without sentimental fluff. In The Learning Curve, an essay published in Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris describes his failure as a writing teacher. He’s at such a complete loss for what to do with his class, that he wheels in a television set one day and forces the students to watch his favorite soap, One Life to Live, instructing them to guess what might happen next.
I bet you didn’t think I’d bring it back to Vicky Buchanan, but I did. Aside from writing characters that are flawed, neurotic and self-destructive, a little humor, too, can breathe life into a story.