Charles Salzberg: You Like Me, You Really Like Me?

Charles Salzberg

Like all writers, I’ve got a desk drawer filled with rejection slips from the years before email, when we received those disheartening stabs through the heart via the U.S. Mail. Or to be more precise, I used to have them. When I moved out of an old apartment several years ago, I finally tossed them in the trash. After all, I am well aware of my own inadequacies and don’t need to be reminded of them.

There are all kinds of reasons given for rejecting a manuscript but, as an ex-editor friend said wisely to me years ago, “there are a million ways to say no, but only one way to say, yes.”

It’s one of those million ways of saying no that I want to talk about now, a way that is particularly galling to me. So, here goes.

“I’m afraid I just don’t like the main character.”

Really? Well, let me clue you in on something. You’re not supposed to like him. That’s the point. The guy’s unlikeable. He’s a) a killer, b) a thief, c) a misogynist, d) he hates his mother and his father and, in fact, he hates just about everyone, and e) there’s something wrong with you if you do like him.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

My question is this: Where is it written that you have to like a character? No. No. No. I don’t care if you like the character or not. (I do, however, care very deeply that you like me…) What I want is that you believe the character. That you find the character interesting. That you find the character realistic. I’d much rather you like your friends and your family, than “like” my character. I would, however, like that you’ve learn something from the character. Maybe about people, maybe about yourself.

Let’s get more specific.

Several years ago, my novel, Devil in the Hole was published. It was based on the notorious John List, who murdered his three children, wife, mother, and the family dog, and then disappeared. He was, to say the least, not a very nice man. He was a cold-blooded killer, who meticulously planned his murders, even contacting his kids’ schools to tell them they’d be on vacation, as well as stopping the mail. As a result, the bodies weren’t found until three weeks after the murders, giving List plenty of time to make his escape.

I was fascinated by the case not because it was particularly lurid, but because of the planning that went into it. List (named Hartman in the novel) didn’t just snap one day and commit murder. He probably spent weeks, maybe months, thinking about it. How could this be? What kind of man does this and why? That’s what the novel, told through the eyes of almost two dozen people affected by the killings or who come in contact with Hartman as he makes his escape, is really about. I wanted to present Hartman not as a monster, but as a very flawed human being. I wondered how much of him is in any of us? Most of all, I did not want him to be just another stereotypical homicidal maniac.

Obviously, you can’t tell people what to think or how to react to a character. All you can hope for is that you’ve been successful enough as a writer to get your point across. It seems as if I have, at least to one person.

One day, I was invited out to my friend and fellow crime writer, Ken Wishnia’s college class on Long Island. He assigned them the book to read and I was there to discuss it with them.

At one point, taking questions from the audience of about two dozen college students, a young woman raised her hand and said, “You know, I feel very guilty about this but when I finished reading the book I kind of felt sorry for John Hartman.”

Bingo! That was the best thing I could hear, because it meant that she’d managed to get past the visceral, first reaction of murderer, evil incarnate, monster, less-than-human. Instead, she realized that even someone who commits the most heinous of crimes is, in the end, human, and perhaps someone to be pitied, or at the very least, understood. Which means he’s no different from any of us. Sometimes we do some pretty bad stuff, but it’s not necessarily because we’re evil, it’s because we’re human.

In my latest novel, Second Story Man, one of the main characters, Francis Hoyt, is a master burglar, the best at his chosen trade. He’s arrogant, manipulative, amoral, misogynistic, and cruel. In short, he’s not very likeable. He’s not the kind of guy you’d like to meet up for a drink. But as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t have to be. What he has to be is interesting. I don’t want or need the reader to root for Hoyt, but I do want and need the reader to understand him, to get what makes him tick, to see what motivates him and why he is the way he is. In Hoyt, I’ve tried to create another human character, someone who can teach us something about life and about ourselves.

The two other characters in the novel are Charlie Floyd, a recently retired Connecticut State investigator, and Manny Perez, a Cuban-American Miami police detective, recently suspended as a result of a run-in with Hoyt. I do want you to like these two men, and I want you to root for them in their quest to bring down Francis Hoyt. But they, too, are human, which means they’re flawed.

So, in the end, as an author, what I’m interested in is not so much that my readers like my characters, but that they understand them and learn from them. But most of all, I want that they find them interesting enough to keep reading till the end.

If you’re able to do that, I like you, I really like you.

Charles Salzberg is a former magazine journalist who has now turned to a life of crime. His first novel, Swann’s Last Song, was nominated for a Shamus Award, and there are three others in the series: Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair, which was nominated for two Silver Falchions, and was a Finalist for the Beverly Hills Book Award and the Indie Excellence Award, and Swann’s Way Out. His novel, Devil in the Hole, was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, and his novella, “Twist of Fate,” was included in Triple Shot, a collection of three noir crime novellas. His most recent book is Second Story Man. He is the author of more than twenty non-fiction books, including From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, an oral history of the NBA, and Soupy Sez: My Zany Life and Times, with Soupy Sales. He has taught magazine journalist at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and he teaches writing at the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.