Claire Messud on making friends with Characters

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Annasue McCleave from Publishers Weekly suggested during an interview with Claire Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends” with Nora, the fiery protagonist in Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. “[Nora's] outlook is almost unbearably grim,” continues McCleave.

Messud shot back:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’

Not only is Messud’s snappy response funny, but it is also solid advice for writers: Worry less about whether readers will “like” your characters and more about whether they are truly alive on the page.


Pat Johnson is currently working on his master’s in Fiction Writing at San Francisco State University, and is the owner and editor of the satirical news website The New Porker. When Pat’s not reading or writing he’s likely squeezing a lime into a Tecate and headed to the dance floor. He also creates short films, documentaries, and sketch comedies. Pat is completing his first novel, The Virgin and Marilyn Monroe, and writing a book of Creative Non-Fiction short stories. More from this author →