Good People Don’t Make Good Characters

Philip Roth taught the author Tony Tulathimutte that writers should aim to show all aspects of their subjects—not only the morally upstanding side.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The debate about whether fictional characters should be sympathetic tends to focus on external pressures—the commercial considerations of “likability” and “relatability,” the fear that readers won’t stick with protagonists they can’t identify with or root for. But Tony Tulathimutte, the author of Private Citizens, points out something less often acknowledged: Writers themselves are expected to play the part of sympathetic, super-perceptive, even heroic human beings. And it’s easier to fulfill that requirement when you’re writing about “good” people.

In his essay for this series, Tulathimutte admits that, as a younger writer, he tried to telegraph his own nobility through generously imagined characters. But Philip Roth’s American Trilogy taught him to distrust the notion that novelists know more, or feel more, or are better people, than anyone else. Taking cues from Roth, Tulathimutte’s learned to write better fiction by fleshing out his characters’ ugly, reprehensible sides—disclosing (and problematizing) his own personal shortcomings in the process.

Private Citizens follows four recent Stanford Grads out of the ivory tower and into the wilds of a Bay Area disfigured by tech companies. Stanford students, we learn, are like ducks: “tranquil on the surface but paddling furiously to keep afloat.” As the characters haplessly pursue various fulfillments—sex, professional dignity, political purpose, venture capital—Tulathimutte’s manic, unsparing, and entertaining narrations reveal the psychic turmoil below each outwardly tranquil surface.

Tony Tulathimutte’s short fiction has won an O. Henry award; his writing has appeared in n+1, VICE, Salon, The New Yorker, AGNI, Threepenny Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other places.

Tony Tulathimutte: In 2008 I was cash flush and loathed myself and everything I’d written. I had a book of short stories that were decently written, but had something queasily embarrassing and juvenile in common: The protagonists were such good people. It wasn’t that they were flawless Mary Sues, but they were possessed of such admirable core qualities that their flaws were eminently forgivable: a fame-hungry bulimic, a hardass father drying out his pillhead son, a figure-skating prodigy who falls on purpose to terminate her secret pregnancy. They would usually be less well-to-do, less educated, less self-aware, in far greater suffering, usually female. Their relative simplicity was rationalized by their youth, and any misbehavior was justified by their hard circumstances. And if the reader still didn’t like them, at least I could avoid being identified with them: They were white.

The effect of these stories was to instill in readers a feeling somewhere between pity and tenderness, a tingling confidence that they were better, kinder people for having spent a time visiting the less fortunate, and by extension, gratitude for an author who really got people different from himself, who you might want to date and publish.

And publish I did! With a few modest tokens of legitimacy in hand, it took some time to accept how much effort I was spending trying to convince people—myself included—that I had the talent and compassion to see the innate humanness in people very different from me. That is, I wanted to prove through my “good” characters that I was good. Inwardly I convinced myself that, by reaching across identity boundaries and beyond my privileges, I was spurning “self-indulgence” and instead striving for depth, warmth, universality, even truth. Yet what’s faker than trying to pass off vanity as compassion?

Even then I was secretly disdainful of this approach, the clear sense that in doing all this admirable empathy-work, the author expects a sugar cookie and a pat on the head. It’s what makes me cringe when I read a comfortable gentile’s grotesque Holocaust fiction, for example—however heartfelt their empathy may be, they’re still co-opting a form of suffering they’ll never be exposed to, and usually getting deafening praise for it.

Around then I was starting to read a lot of Philip Roth, America’s literary sovereign for the last quarter century, whom I’d been equally recommended and warned against. I’d enjoyed Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, but my appreciation came with a few asterisks—I found his angry smashing of strictures exciting, and his angry performance of white-dude entitlements deeply uncute. I started with his American trilogy, which had been described as a meditation on moral outrage in three eras of American history. It sounded pretty tendentious to me, another laureled white guy out to tell us all what’s wrong with us. But isn’t this what we’ve come to demand and expect of a great writer? Readers of fiction know that they’re not getting anything like the literal truth, yet believe, through some combination of greater learning and deeper living and a dap from God, the author has the inside track to human nature and society, and they’re about to share it with the class.

Roth torches this view early on in American Pastoral, in a cliff of text delivered by his faithful stand-in Nathan Zuckerman:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance … and yet you never fail to get them wrong … You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of “other people,” which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: We’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.

I very much appreciate it when a writer makes their own job more difficult, and here, at the outset of a trilogy about a fictional character who writes fictions from the perspectives of other fictional characters, Roth hangs a big warning sign in the foyer more or less proclaiming WE’RE WINGING THIS SHIT, YOU IN?

The sentiment is echoed throughout the second book, I Married a Communist:

Look, there is no way out of this thing. When you loosen yourself from all the obvious delusions—religion, ideology, Communism—you’re still left with the myth of your own goodness. Which is the final delusion.

Nothing has a more sinister effect on art than an artist’s desire to prove that he’s good.

And again in The Human Stain:

There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.

Why would a narrator, much less a writer, so utterly torpedo his own authority? It was Roth’s way out of the conundrum of fiction, his version of I-can’t-go-on-I’ll-go-on. By acknowledging that truly knowing and empathizing with other people is impossible, he obviates the idea that writing from the vantage of the less fortunate is inherently truer or more noble. And instead of trying to head off speculation about the author through his characters, Roth baits it, even featuring a narrator we can’t help but compare biographically to the author, at high risk of opprobrium.

Such an approach grants the writer a combination of humility and license. It offers a less credulous role for the reader: not to place superstitious trust in an author’s privileged insight, but to appreciate his characters the way one appreciates comedians doing impressions or actors acting—we never believe that they’ve become someone else, but we can admire the dazzling illusion.

Edmund White makes his students write bad characters: “Only once they break the good barrier do these young writers begin to understand the possibilities of fiction.” Zadie Smith warns that you can not only fail to tell the truth, but get away with it, fooling critics and yourself, and that “though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend.” For Smith, “writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self.”

In adapting Roth’s approach to my writing, I set out some heuristics—my characters would be 1.) exactly as smart as me, 2.) about as privileged, and 3.) freely awful. They’re millennials. Cory is self-righteous, Linda a malicious liar, Henrik a pitiful sad-sack. Then there’s Will, who, as the only Asian protagonist, I expected readers to identify with me. I’d always played it safe by strapping the neutralizing uniform of whiteness onto my characters, fearing that anything unusual an Asian character did would be attributed to their Asianness (and mine). Well, Will is Asian, and he’s a real dick. He surveils and manipulates his girlfriend, is ugly-rich, drinks, binges on porn, and nurtures a self-centered preoccupation with his own oppression that leads him to minimize everyone else’s. On top of that, he embodies just about every Asian male stereotype there is. Like Roth, rather than avoid unflattering comparisons and stereotypes, I booby-trapped them; and the impossibility of constructing an authentic identity was no longer an obstacle, but a subject.

Freedoms are habit-forming. Once I let go of any pretense of knowing other people and any interest in concealing my flaws, I saw at once how my less desirable qualities could be leveraged—that, for instance, being the most judgmental prick on Earth suited me to satire, or that my self-centeredness offered material for farce I could never touch before, because nothing dulls comedy like respectability. I set out to write with as much love, empathy, hope, and imagination as hate, spite, pessimism, and self-indulgence. And so the book got written.

I’m not saying unsavory characters automatically make for good writing; it’s just as easy to go the other way and make Bret Easton Ellis/Chuck Palahniuk shadow puppets (dark, flat, silly). The same usually goes for attempts to look intellectual, radical, manly, “brave” (in the sense of confessional), self-deprecating, hip; in each case, the project is branding, not art. I’m saying that to try to write your characters in such a way as to avoid or shape any comparisons to you, and worse, to call this empathy, is to forfeit the honesty that readers deserve in lieu of truth.