The accident had just happened when I came upon it. I could tell it was bad, the way the truck was skewed across the road, the car half under it. Police and ambulance were arriving and traffic was held up. As I watched, the truck driver came from behind the remains of the car carrying the lifeless form of the small child he’d lifted from it.
I always carry a camera – it’s one of my things – and the thought occurred to me as I watched: That scene would make an award winning, front page filling news photograph, if someone had the – the what? – the journalistic objectiveness, the ability to distance oneself, the nerve, the heartlessness, the presence of mind, to take it.
As a former journalist whose work included covering accidents – could I have taken it? (I didn’t.)
The incident formed the genesis, many years later, of my YA novel, Scab (J. Lorimer & Co. 2010), although I changed the picture taking dilemma facing the young apprentice photojournalist of the title.
What prompted these reflections on Scab was a friend sending me a MacLean’s article that asked, with reference to Herman Koch’s dark and macabre novel, The Dinner, ‘Who needs a likeable character, anyway?’
The success of The Dinner answers the question: No, you don’t need a likeable character.
Still, I think you need a central character who may not be likeable, but whom the reader at least cares about.
Scab is not likeable. He’s prickly and rude and ruthless in the pursuit of his ambition to make memorable news photographs. He’s also vulnerable and deeply emotionally wounded. I keep a kind of informal poll on how readers feel about him and they’re split 50/50 between those who think him a despicable cad and those who, while not condoning his actions, sympathise with him and care about him.
How about you? Do you think characters need to be likeable? How do you feel about Scab?
Is he a cad – or sad?