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Writing on Zoe Heller’s Characters

On Pleasant and Unpleasant Characters

While writing short stories, I’ve often been told how important it is for readers to empathise with my characters, to root for them or hate them.

Here’s an interesting article in the NYT about Zoe Heller’s (the writer of Notes on a Scandal) characters in her new novel “The Believers.”

Heller says: β€œI don’t write books for people to be friends with the characters. If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party. The point of fiction is not to offer up moral avatars but to engage with people whose politics or points of view are unpleasant or contradictory.”

I’m intrigued by a writer who prefers “prefers insight to amiability.”

As a reader, I know I’m partial towards characters who engage me, who’re layered, and I have to admit, those who are likable. Maybe it is time to change gears as a writer, and play a little with the unpleasant sort of characters.

It is important to get the balance right, though, as lit agent Nathan Bransford points out in his fascinating post here.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Damyanti says:

    Raymond, yay for Fiction! I’m sure you will be able to tell your stories, skill only comes with practice, and I’m sure you’re doing a lot of that!

    Thanks Sarah, I’m glad you liked the post πŸ™‚

  • Sarah Jensen says:

    I agree that you need to root for some characters, but if you don’t have people you want to shoot, it’s just not as fun! πŸ™‚
    Again, great post!

  • Raymond says:

    Yes, sometimes we really have to bury our heads into fiction. We have to see something new, something outrageous, something far different from the usual hoopla that we’re currently dealing with in our world today…heck, that’s why it’s called “fiction”–escaping reality, having a breath of fresh air, immersing thyself into a whole new world…FICTION. No more, no less. πŸ™‚

    Now I wonder when I’ll get the chance to write a good fiction story. But wait, I wonder when I’ll be able to jump past my poor storytelling skills first. Haha!

    Well, thanks for the pointers Ma’am! Your posts are really informative. Keep writing!