The remark that most surprised me in a review of my book How was that the stories were "rich in compassion"—surprised me because, by and large, I don't like people. Ask my friends to describe me, and compassionate won't make the top twenty. My cats get most of my love. So I've been thinking about that word compassion and how it's achieved in fiction—about how, in fact, my favorite characters in literature are those mysteriously human enough to startle me into empathy. It's that word mystery that seems to be the point: The characters that most powerfully evoke my compassion are the ones who, paradoxically, most resist being known.
That might feel counterintuitive; the better we understand someone, the more fully we should be able to respond to him. But we don't understand people in real life, not in the sense of comprehending them and holding their keys, not even our friends, not even our husbands and wives, not even close; real people continue to hoard as you pick through them, do so exactly so you can't pick through them; so it's simply a question of whether we're willing to let our characters be real people. This ought to be the point of literary fiction, the thing that makes it different from epigram or essay or encomium: to ask questions about people, not to answer them.
I read a lot of stories that are in an enormous hurry to unconfuse and assure the reader. The main character's essence and conflict are immediately clear, and the secondary characters jump obediently into labeled boxes: Insensitive Loan Officer, Childless Neighbor Who Grows Roses, Humanities Professor Lacking in Humanity. Such stories have the virtue of clarity, but clarity is a primer virtue, kids' stuff. The problem is that there's nothing left for the reader to do in a story like this except watch the characters pinball forward through the bumpers of plot. But literary fiction is not about plot. In literary fiction, character is plot.
I suspect that some of this panic for intelligibility has editors, not readers, in mind. When our stories percolate to the top of the pile, we want them to do something clear and bracing. I also sense that we want to catch the attention of people with TVs in the next room and Facebook cued up on their phones. But hoping that letters on a page can compete with "Big Brother" is like believing you can win a mixed martial arts bout with chess skills—you're in the wrong arena. And trying to guess what editors want is as blunt-minded a game as trying to figure out What Latinos think or What women want—leave that to Mel Gibson.
I want to be held off as a reader, to be resisted. I want to have my readerly smugness frustrated. I don't want a story to do what my checkbook does, "make sense." I don't want the puzzle to be a rectangle, and I don't want to be given all the pieces.
The problem of too-legible characters isn't necessarily solved by employing an unreliable narrator. As James Wood notes in The Irresponsible Self, unreliable narrators are usually reliably unreliable—that is, writers provide subtle, consistent signals about the nature of their narrators' unreliability. Once the reader charts these signals, the story becomes a simple game of peek-a-boo with the reader—we know exactly what's behind that hand. Reliably unreliable narrators may be printed on both sides, but they're still cardboard cut-outs.
As a younger writer, I hated the advice to Write What You Know—my life was exactly what I hoped writing and reading would help me escape—but I do wish someone had told me it was okay to Write Who I Know. Uncle Charley might not like seeing his comb-over described in print, but the chances that, a) you'll ever get the story published and that, b) Uncle Charley will bother to read it are pretty low, and pressing Uncle Charley into fictional service will help you avoid the fakeness of over-designed characters because Charley is coherently (and inscrutably) Charley: that sad-sounding laugh and the post-it notes he scribbles on when he watches MSNBC, the hand lotion he smells like and the angry scowl he wears even when he sleeps.
My worst missteps as a writer have come from putting the cart (the story, my urge to write one) before the horse (the character, who will either make the story move or render it motionless); from monstering characters together from a charnel pile of traits—"Let's make him bigoted but sentimental, obsessed with film noir, and hypochondriacal"—and sending them into my stories with their stitch-lines showing. The mistake is to think of a story as a construction, an assemblage of logical components capable of expression on a blueprint—as something that can be built, like a boat or bird house, in a workshop. I might admire that bird house; I might find it clever. But I'm unlikely to fall in love with it.