Strength of character

Reactions to Patrick Hinde, the protagonist of my novel Out of Sight, have been forceful: it’s not that readers don’t like the character, it’s that they feel so strongly towards him that they want to throttle or even torture him because of his behaviour!

Which raises a really interesting question: do you have to like a protagonist in order fully to enjoy a book?

I wrote Patrick/Patrice with compassion, but nevertheless wanted to show how dangerous a damaged person can be to people who try to love him. He’s certainly not a hero. But neither is Leonie – who falls in love with him – entirely blameless in her romantic collusion.

Fiction demands heroes and heroines. They’re part of the satisfaction of reading. But how, then, do you write about ‘real’ people?

For some insight, I went back to a masterpiece of oblique and eliptical character revelation: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. It, too, is about a woman stubbornly loving a man who’s not going to do her any good.

The story is told in the first person by the second Mrs de Winter. She escapes being a paid companion to the dreadful Mrs Van Hopper by marrying the widowed Maxim de Winter, whom she loves with such loyalty that no word of criticism ever escapes her. The book is haunted by Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter, and the plot largely driven by Rebecca’s obsessively devoted – and crazy – housekeeper.

The narrator is never named, Mrs Danvers’ precise position at Manderley is never stated, when the caddish Favell (who loved Rebecca) first turns up, he doesn’t introduce himself: we have to work out for ourselves who people are.

The least defined character is Maxim. The second Mrs de Winter cannot speak the truth about her husband’s character, not even to herself – or perhaps especially not to herself. Deep down she knows it, and that knowledge squeezes itself out between the lines of her narration.

At the beginning of the novel (in exile, she welcomes even the cricket scores or a new copy of The Field to banish the ennui of bitterness and regret), and at the end (“I could feel the cold comfort of my sheets in my own bed”), we see that she remains loyal to a cold, dismissive man incapable of loving her, who murdered his first wife not out of passion, but from pride.

If Maxim’s indifference and chilling absence had been more clearly knowable, would we then dislike him so much that the novel would have lost its magic?

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