How to Write a Likable Character

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I read Jonathan Hayes’ “Precious Blood” all the way to the end, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it.  This was partly my own fault for choosing a book by a forensic pathologist, against my better judgement.  For the sake of pleasanter reading, I generally avoid books by people who specialize in all things gruesome

If you’re going to be dealing with corpses, why not make them really macabre corpses?  This seems to be Hayes’ rationale for creating a character who is a brilliant, artistically talented, religiously obsessed, homicidal maniac.  There seems to be an entire vocabulary developed by the people who track the “evolution” of such murderers as they become more proficient with practice.  I have no intention of checking this, but I suspect that a murderer as “evolved” as this one is actually so rare as to be non-existent, and that in reality forensic pathologists spend their entire careers dealing with bodies killed in very ordinary ways by murderers who have no interest in leaving intriguing clues.

Enough about corpses.  The most interesting aspect of the book for me was the question of why I didn’t like protagonist Doctor Edward Jenner, a character who failed to be as likable as he apparently was meant to be.  I first thought about the writing technique involved in creating a likable character when I read Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”.  Even the title of the book plays a part in shaping the reader’s attitude to the narrator, who isn’t Sebastian Knight, but the self-effacing brother who searches for him and whose full name never appears.

What’s wrong with Jenner?  Several things.  First of all, although modest and unassuming is good (Nabokov does it perfectly), he’s not convincingly modest and unassuming because the characterization isn’t consistent.  Second, while having some faults or problems may elicit sympathy for a character, it doesn’t work if the author is too heavy-handed.  Hayes tries to force us to feel sympathy for Jenner by twisting our arms.  How can you not feel sympathy for a pathologist who examined victims of 9/11?  I believe that it must have been awful, but then, I’m someone for whom one dead body is one too many.  For an experienced forensic pathologist, was 9/11 so different from his everyday work that it made him a complete nervous wreck?  This distress is supposed to excuse the third, and most objectionable thing, about him, namely, forming a sexual relationship with a college student twenty years his junior who takes refuge with him after her flatmate is brutally murdered.  These two have nothing at all in common but (and the italics are the author’s), Jenner found that he actually liked the girl.  Sorry Dr. Hayes, but your Doctor Jenner is creepy.

 

 

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