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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

To root or not to root

I went to lunch with an editor this week. I had sent her a novel which she loved, but couldn’t get any support to acquire it. She said the publisher had one iron clad criteria for acquiring books: there had to be someone to root for. There is was, four simple words: someone to root for. How, after 25 years in publishing, had I failed to get the memo?

Aren’t the greatest characters of all time deeply flawed, morally compromised, tragically poised, and often irredeemable? And why the hell do characters have to change? Isn’t it enough to know them better or watch them sink like Herzog, Hamlet, and Humbolt? Sympathetic characters who learn their lessons need not apply.

I want you tortured, disturbed, diminished, and drunk. I want you abandoned, lonely, jealous, and alone. I want characters who suck all the air out of a room, who you run from at a party, who always ring twice. I want it messy, hysterical, certifiable. I want too much or not enough. I want to root for every abject thing, for “the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore,” for the most glorious monster and the lowest angel. Unsympathetic, undeserving, unapologetic, unrootable. These are my people.

Who do you root for?

33 Responses

  1. i’m all for degenerates with humanity.

    pleasure/pain are created by the contrast between pure/contemptible. these contrasts lodge in our imagination and stay with us.

    change occurs on a small scale for my characters, although my main character is talking redemption to me these days. i’m surprised.

  2. I’ll root for any character with a striking voice, whether it’s Humbert Humbert or Jesus in the Gospels. Consistency in tone attracts me. I think of the narrators (or main characters) in some of my favorite books — My Antonia, On the Road, All the King’s Men, This Boy’s Life, The Catcher in the Rye, Peace Like a River, Mr. Bridge — and it seems to me that they all share a self-assurance, even in their confusions and manias, that gives them a reality beyond fiction. I relate to them in the way that I relate to people I admire in the real world. I want to listen to them. I’m willing to go along with whatever they say, however bizarre, however out of touch with my personal morality. First and last, the characters I root for are great rhetoricians — the creations of great rhetoricians — and a capable enough author could have me rooting for the devil.

  3. you mean people like this?


  4. Is it not axiomatically impossible to root for the unrootable? What are you rooting for? That they lose? Get the girl? Chew the stitches from their wrists? Get off the junk?

    Just as my own phantom fictional limbs do and say things I find unconscionable (but desirable), I like characters who suffer so that I don’t have to.

    • In other words, I like to be presented with a worldview that offers no easy moral code and no false narrative solution.

  5. I used to think that Blanche Dubois was just another aging psycho whore…but that’s when I was young and less forgiving of my own pyscho whorishness. I saw A Streetcar Named Desire recently, and saw her as a wise mystic, a tragic heroine. My sympathy lied with her because I could “go there.”

    I guess who we root for is entirely dependent on the flaws that we can accept and embrace in ourselves…

  6. Wholly depends on the writing. But for me, the character does have to be sympathetic. He doesn’t have to change or live happily ever after, but he does have to be multi-dimensional. He has to surprise me. Otherwise, he’s a bore after a while and I will not follow him.

  7. “Petty” mentioned ‘My Antonia.’ I prefer Mrs. Forrester in “A Lost Lady.” Talk about tragic heroines….

  8. The Wolfman, always The Wolfman.

  9. I root for the ones who think. Who have or had a perfect idea or hypothesis or creative vision. May the rest of their lives fall to hell, but at least they have something true.

  10. I like dark characters with empty cupboards and empty souls.

    And I hate that they have to change or that a book has to have a happy ending.

    I love it when an author writes so well that you feel as if you’ve moved into the character’s spare room (not that my best-loved characters would have a spare room) and are living with them.

    My favorite books are ones that leave me feeling as though I’ve been beaten down as badly as the characters.

  11. I root for characters that have what used to be called “gumption.” Mainly women, I guess: I’m thinking of English novels of the 40s and 50s, all those Viragos and Persephone reprints. Especially if the rest of the world undervalues them. Love those girls.

  12. I root for characters who will get me the sale.

  13. I root for characters who are one step from the cliff but something happens and they take even a half step the other way. I never thought of it as “happy ending” perhaps just not ashes to ashes…so yes something has to happen for them not to go into the void. I need that so I don’t give that other direction more allure than it already has. Yes near-tragically depressive, with the emphasis on near. Emily Bronte anyone?

  14. Rooting for a character simply means you want something to happen to them. It might be the same result they want, happily ever after, etc. or it might be that they get their comeuppance, the exact opposite of what they want. Either way you have something invested in seeing something come to fruition, just as in a sporting event or a political contest.

    That is why I don’t have to always care about the character. They don’t have to be a hero or be good. I just have to care about what happens to them, whether it is what they want or not.

  15. For Edwin Booth (whom you pictured). He was considered at that time the greatest U.S. Shakespearean actor. After his brother, John Wilkes Booth (a matinee idol actor in the vain of Errol Flynn) killed a certain president, Edwin, in his first performance following the assasination, was booed and pelted by his audience with various and sundry produce. He stood resolute throughout the onslaught and eventually someone began clapping and soon the crowd was on his side giving him a standing ovation. I root for characters like Edwin Booth. Who have the balls to take the heat unflinchingly.

    • Thank you so much — fantastic story. I heart Edwin. And to think I just liked the photograph. Thank you, Anonymous.

  16. Lily Bart. All of Alicia Erian’s characters. People who are making bad decisions and will keep on making them.

    Just as I hope an editor will soon be rooting for the narrator of my memoir, who is overly critical of herself and others, and keeps making the same big, bad decision over and over again.

  17. […] Lerner Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself While this post isn’t necessary specific to memoir, I found it thought-provoking in regards to […]

  18. I hate it when publishers get in their heads that there is one element that makes books work or not work. It’s closed minded and counterproductive but I suppose it’s the way it’s always been; hence why so many famous books have stories attached to them of some industry big shot saying ‘this will never sell because of X’ when in fact X is what made it sell.

    This is why I so respect agents/ editors/ publishers who get the concept of something being ‘in the read’. Does that sometimes make it difficult for marketing/ publicity folks to tease out a hook with which to push it upon the ever unwilling masses? Yes. But that is that they’re paying us (albeit meagerly) to do.

    • I once bought a paperback of The Sheltering Sky, a 1950-something printing. The back cover copy read like a lurid, steamy noir romance. Truly, existentialism was never so sexy. So marketing can do anything if they put their minds to it.

  19. Also…Becky Sharpe FTW.

  20. Note to publisher—I never root for anyone who plays it safe.

  21. I root for anybody with a dream, from pricks to saints. I would root for a New York literary agent with ‘snakes in her head’, who is trying to publish her novel. That sounds like a good read.

  22. I often find myself rooting for the anti-hero, the one you just know is going to lose (due to that ‘must have good ending’ requirement)…and yet I’m always letdown when yes, they lose just like I thought they would.

    Movies especially:
    Cool Hand Luke
    Bonnie & Clyde (circa 60s)

    I could go on, but you get the picture!

  23. Do I root for characters or get annoyed with them because they make the same stupid mistakes I make in my own life?

    Depends on the day. Or actually, both.

    I notice a lot of names starting with the letter H in that list. Maybe I should change my protagonist’s name to Honoria. She’s a complete mess.

  24. “characters…who always ring twice” – !

    I love the opening sentence of that novel:
    “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

  25. I think I’d agree with the editor. I like deeply flawed characters, but they need to be sympathetic at some level–otherwise why keep reading? I read a (famous well-reviewed) book recently where a dog was shot and stuffed in the trunk of a car. I put the book down and never picked it up again. I hate pretentious depressing nihilistic fiction. Who cares if it’s literary? I won’t read it. Maybe that makes me a Philistine.

  26. I always end up going for the villain. Unless the protagonist is a bit of an anti-hero. Don’t ask me why, probably the same reason why I fall for the bad boys in real life!

  27. I love Zoe Heller’s books because she gives us the most unsympathetic people and makes us root for them anyway. If her publisher had turned down Everything You Know because of its unsympathetic protagonists, my life would have been poorer for it.

  28. […] a very HONORABLE MENTION goes to Betsy Lerner at The Forest For The Trees, for her excellent rejoinder to the assertion that marketable fiction requires “someone to root for”: Aren’t the […]

  29. I don’t usually post, but THANK YOU! The mania for sympathetic characters is so depressing.

    Kit, whose characters are seriously flawed

  30. I often root for the underdog, the under achiever who needs to grow in their character before the end of the book. Sometimes the tough, go get ’em, females/heroines are a bit much out of sync with life whether it is in the past or today. Everyone is not perfect so characters ought to have weaknesses that need improvement. The journey through the book will reveal whether these flawed characters learn their lessons.

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