A 2paragraphs Interview with Alice Tasman, a literary agent at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in New York.
Q: Of your favorite books, both those you’ve repped or simply loved, what percentage would you say were populated by “likable” characters?
A: I read fiction to fall in love with voice. “Likable” doesn’t consciously enter my mind, but when I initially read this question, I thought it said, “what percentage would you say were populated by ‘unlikable’ characters?” It’s telling because some of my favorite recent novels — Olive Kitteridge, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Mr. Peanut, Gone Girl — are populated by dark, obsessive, self-absorbed, vengeful protagonists. If a writer can humanize this — aggression, betrayal, murder! — in a way that makes a character relatable and empathetic, I’m in. The higher the stakes, the better: Olive’s treatment of Christopher and Henry is deplorable, Bernadette Fox’s anxiety is off the Richter scale, David Pepin fantasizes about killing his wife, Nick and Amy Dunne are out for blood. These characters have major issues. They’re maddening and deeply flawed, and while I wouldn’t want any of them as friends, (with the exception of Bernadette who I secretly love) their thoughts, actions, decisions, VOICE kept me turning the pages sometimes obsessively and in one sitting.
Some of my favorite kids books — Ellen Potter’s The Kneebone Boy, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and Lemony Snicket — are equally populated by bizarre, off-kilter, devilishly dark characters. Again, voice plays a huge part in why I love them so much. It’s true these books are expertly plotted around inexplicable mysteries (a mother’s disappearance, an uncle’s murder) maybe with a Gothic and/or fantastical flourish, but it’s the characters — those quirky British Hardscrabble kids, shin kicker Turtle Wexler and her sibs, Lemony Snicket — who I latch onto, who, despite their oddness and testy sensibilities, feel original and authentic. So clearly, as far as books go, I have a soft spot for “unlikable” characters. The percentage of “likable” is low, maybe/probably because “likable” (understatement) characters are reserved for my life.
– Alice Tasman has been a literary agent at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency since 1995.