THE BLOG
09/04/2014 11:58 am ET | Updated Nov 04, 2014

Betty Crocker, Carmela Soprano, and the Likeability Factor in Fiction

Speaking with readers, reading reviews, and being interviewed means walking between fascination, terror, joy, and angst. Three days ago, speaking about my just-released novel Accidents of Marriage, a reporter mentioned how surprised she was by her negative reactions to the main character -- how she seemed to 'provoke' her husband and how she sympathized with the husband's anger. The next day, participating in a book festival panel, the moderator spoke of the husband as a virtual out-of-control monster, and Maddy as a frightened woman battling emotional abuse.

Yes! My job here was done. Making characters as nuanced on the page as we are in real life is one of my priorities. Plus, readers bring their own experiences to fictional characters, to our stories, and to however authors' belief systems color our work. (Similar to how each one of us found our favorite Beatle -- mine was George -- I've always been drawn to the quiet ones).

But there's a troubling undertone in some reactions to novels about domestic drama books, books that examine whether a woman (or man) 'deserves' to live without verbal, emotional, or any other sort of abuse. In Accidents of Marriage (using multiple points of view: a wife, a husband, and their 14-year-old daughter) Maddy is married to Ben, a man with a trigger-temper; she never knows what will set it off. When he's charming, he's terrific: funny, smart, and capable. When he's irate, he's terrifying: raging, critical and blaming the world for his troubles.

Relationship interactions are never static. Sometimes Maddy placates, working hard to keep her children unaware of the problems she and Ben face; other times she gives in to her frustration and answers back, giving in to her edginess. Plus, she's a bit messy, a working mother with three children, who's rarely (if ever) on top of the unending chores facing the family. When life becomes too much, she'll nibble a Xanax. But she doesn't deserve to be screamed at, raged at, to be driven at speeds that petrify her. She certainly doesn't deserve to end up in an accident that changes her entire life.

For years I worked with batterers, criminals, men ordered to a violence intervention program and the hardest nut to crack was this: one's violence, one's temper, one's temperament, should not be contingent on another's behavior. We all control ourselves. To whit, we scream at our spouses and children -- rarely do we verbally attack our bosses no matter how much they enrage us. Why? Because a) they have power over us, and b) we do have control -- it's all about whether we choose to use that skill or not. And yes, it takes some work. When do we choose to use it and why?

Which brings me to the likable character. There's been a debate back and forth for a while in literature (especially when the author is a woman) as to whether or not a book should be judged on the likeability of a character. This flies in the face of what I want in a book: to be fascinated by the men and women populating it, to root for them to change, and for them to get through their crucibles as unburned as possible.

And with the 'bad guys'? I want them to own up to their deeds and pay for them.

In Accidents of Marriage, only the children are the innocents. (And they have their extremely unlikable moments; is there a child that doesn't?

Which brings me to Betty Crocker. When I worked in domestic violence, we spoke about working against the Betty Crocker syndrome (Betty Crocker representing the lovely perfect woman,) the importance of teaching the public, the men we worked with, and those in the field, how we should never judge the behavior of a perpetrator by the personality of their victim. Nobody deserves to be abused or terrified. Nobody learns (not children, not adults) through terror.

Terror is for the one doing the terrifying. It's how they off load their own defeat. It's how they release their own negativity on those around them.

It's never a tool for building family. Not in real life, not on the pages of a novel.

The very best way to comport oneself is too follow the moral code you've built for yourself, and it shouldn't be mutable based on other's behavior.

It's hard work to get there.

In real life.

And on the page.

That's what I want in the novels I read and write: stories of imperfect men and flawed women taking the long hard journey to get to that place.

So, I think I'm speaking on behalf of many authors: judge us on our lousy writing, our bad grammar, our lack of plot, our sloppy syntax, and our purple prose. But please don't expect all us to feature Betty Crocker. Sometimes we really want to get inside the head of the Carmela Sopranos of the world. The complicated women.

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