Most readers of Cinderella like to identify with the modest, honest and hard-working title character. Realistically, they probably have as much in common with the Ugly Stepsisters.
It is one of the greatest skills of writers to expose the human condition by holding a mirror to readers’ lives, personalities and aspirations. But the reflection isn’t always a pretty one, as our vanities, insecurities and fears are laid bare.
It can be particularly unsettling to see a glimmer of yourself in characters who you consider to be unattractive, or even repellent.
I can remember reading Something Happened by Joseph Heller, and being surprised to find myself torn between hating and identifying with the protagonist. Bob Slocum is a businessman who engages in a stream of consciousness about his job, his family and his own childhood. He is unfaithful, joyless, self-pitying and morally flawed. But somehow, he is an entirely believable character, and in his story I was alarmed to discover a trace of my own prejudices, fears and insecurities.
Similarly, I found elements of frustration and doubt the mother felt in We Need to Talk About Kevin to be strangely familiar. I was surprised that, while I found it difficult to identify with the degree of unease the mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin felt towards her role as a parent, in my own experience I recognised some of her doubts about her capabilities as a parent and her disillusionment with the drudgery of motherhood, although to a far lesser degree. While the mother’s feelings were extreme, they seemed brutally, shockingly and refreshingly honest. This honesty was an antidote to the evangelical zeal with which some parents crowed about the joy of motherhood and the cult of competitive parenting that society deems to be far more acceptable.
I am not the only one to have identified with undesirable characters. Award-winning author Richard Flanagan was unapologetic when questioned about the fictional character he most resembled.
“A library of them, from Hannibal Lecter to Natasha Rostov. In every work of genius we recognise the shocking truth about ourselves: we embody the universe but are condemned to posing as a pebble.”
The sense of understanding of our private and unexamined thoughts by a writer, sometimes living far away or even in another century, can be revelatory.
Writer C.S. Lewis believed this sense of being understood was one of the most important reasons why people read novels, saying: “We read to know we are not alone.”
While many books draw on individual personalities or behaviours, some shine a light on the frailties and proclivities of whole communities.
The Bonfire of the Vanities highlighted the snobbery, self-protection and racism of a vast group of New Yorkers. Despite the unflattering nature of Tom Wolfe’s account of society at the time, the book was a critical success and quickly became a bestseller. Clearly, New Yorkers did not resent their representation, but reveled in it. Commentators have indicated that this might have been because the criticism was democratically applied – no one escapes Wolfe’s scorn, from the elite bankers to the criminals who fill the law courts every day.
The novel was inspired by Vanity Fair, which itself exposed the moral weakness of 19th Century England. Critics were similarly smitten by William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, although concerned by its “unremittingly dark portrayal of human nature”.
John Updike’s books are renowned for their depiction of a certain demographic – the middle class everyman, responding to turmoil in their lives. His characters tolerate almost intolerable marriages, crash around causing harm to those around them, and generally bumble their way through life. Much of their popularity stems from the insights Updike makes into ‘ordinary’ life, and the reflection readers see of their own lives.
Johnathan Franzen is renowned for exposing the hidden truths of middle America, including the reality that all families are dysfunctional if you look closely, and honestly, enough. I listened to Franzen talk in Melbourne last week and he said that not only did he expose human frailty in his books, but in doing so, he also exposed elements of his own life. He said that while his books The Corrections, Freedom and Purity were by no means autobiographical, they naturally and unavoidably contained elements of his inner life. He said while he did not find it difficult to write honestly, he found it very difficult to put some of his thoughts, which he considered sources of shame, onto the page.
Writer BangambikiHabyarimana agrees about the courage required in writing novels, saying: “Writing is exposing yourself to strangers.”
Author Neil Gaiman believes this exposure is the key to the most successful writing.
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
As uncomfortable as it might be for writers and readers alike, this honesty and exposure is an invaluable gift, reassuring us that, in this complex world, we are not alone.