How To Make Characters Lovable

Amy Bloom’s stories reveal the crucial secrets.

One by one, they march across the proscenium of Amy Bloom’s new story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. They are grouchy academics, pissed-off orphans, and melancholy middle-aged lawyers. They are characters as real as ourselves and our friends, but mysteriously rendered lovable. What makes a character lovable? It’s a mysterious thing, the fact that a reader can fall in love with a nonexistent person. If we want to understand how this happens, we ought to look closely at Bloom’s collection, which is like a lovability primer.

The book is comprised of two sets of linked stories, as well as a few stand-alones. The first set of four stories concerns Clare and William. The two are old friends, married to other people who are better looking and nicer than they are. Clare is a prickly academic, described by another character as “no day at the beach.” William is a gout-ridden probable alcoholic, described by another character as a “big fat smoothie.”

The two couples have been a small, friendly tribe for many years when William and Clare surprise themselves by betraying their fine, kind spouses and starting a clandestine affair, the kind of affair that takes place at motels hard by the interstate with wine cooling in the bathroom sink. (Fans of Laurie Colwin will be reminded of Another Marvelous Thing, also a set of linked stories about a pair of crabby, ill-suited lovers.) This affair leads, through the course of four stories, to a small portion of happiness and also to that other side of the happiness coin, heartbreak. These are two grown-ups who know that they’re not going to be let off easily. Their foray into love takes real courage; they have perfect foresight of the fact that they will be taking lumps, one way or another.

And yet we come to feel tenderly toward this unappealing pair. In Fiction Writing 101, you learn that the way to make characters lovable is to give them imperfections. The reader, it is thought, will feel more sympathetic toward a character who is not quite perfect. Certainly William and Clare are more interesting than their paragonlike spouses. Consider this description of William, from Clare’s point of view: “At the beach last summer, he’d kept to his linen pants and guayabera (’Fat men may not appear in bathing suits,’ he said). … I thought every part of him must be a pink-tinged white, wide and thick and immaculately kept.” This passage creates a lot of good will in the reader toward both William and Clare. He has that good, self-deprecatory joke; she has that inappropriately sexualized gaze, directed at such an unlikely object. They become more lovable in just a couple of sentences.

Bloom goes a little further, though, than simply creating imperfect, faulty characters. She writes from a place where faults and virtues aren’t meaningful distinctions. Clare’s intransigence, William’s gluttony: These aren’t faults or virtues. They’re simply the stuff these characters are made of, neither good nor bad. This is what nonjudgment looks like in a fiction writer. Bloom’s exploration of her characters is niftily supported by the structure of the book. Linked short stories make an elegant vessel for character development. They create a place where characters can grow, and do odd things, and surprise us.

Full disclosure, if not of bias, then of critical fickleness: I have not always loved linked stories. Recently I came across a book review I wrote about 10 years ago in which I asserted that I, in fact, hated them. What turned me? I think it’s this: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less invested in plot. I just can’t muster the interest that I once had. I’ve seen ‘em all, coming and going, and now excessive plotting seems like a lot of din. I read plot the way I watch my kid somersault: “That’s nice, dear.”

The dynamism in a novel is dependent upon plot; the plot makes the thing go. The dynamism in a collection of linked short stories can, of course, hinge on plot. But it can also lie elsewhere—within the movement of the stories themselves; in subtle alterations in tone; in a change in perspective; in the ending of one story and the beginning of the next, so much more of a bump than a mere chapter ending can provide.

The second series of stories in this collection—the Lionel and Julia stories—have been gathered from other Bloom works (one is tempted to write Bloomworks, as though she were some kind of divine short-story factory): one from the 1993 collection Come to Me, and two from the 2000 collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Bloom has capped these three stories with a new one, which concludes the Lionel and Julia series.

Don’t let the recycling deter you. I was poised to feel ripped off, but Bloom’s impulse to pull them together made sense as soon as I read them, all in order. This set of stories features the inciting incident to end all inciting incidents: Lionel, a revered jazz musician, has died, leaving behind his wife, Julia; Lionel Jr., his son by a previous mother; and his and Julia’s son, Buster. Riven by grief, Julia does the unthinkable. She goes to bed, for one night, with her stepson. The following stories trace the decades-long radioactive fallout from this encounter.

Over the years, Lionel becomes an elegant, elusive Parisian; Buster grows up to be a good egg and eventually a judge. As the sons come and go from Julia’s life, Bloom touches on but never hammers the themes of family, sex, gender roles, and race (the kids are of mixed race, she’s white). In the final story, one of the main characters dies. In fact, death hangs over these stories—the whole book—until the reader comes to suspect that where the god of love hangs out is among the dead and dying. When these characters lose someone important to them, they have a chance to experience small moments of compassion. The Lionel and Julia stories don’t end with forgiveness; they end with the cool relief of acceptance. The characters aren’t just objects of Bloom’s nonjudgment. For a moment, they themselves are agents of nonjudgment.

I had made up my mind not to say anything in this review about Bloom’s other occupation: psychotherapist. Reviewers are always invoking this as an explanation for Bloom’s awesome powers of psychological insight and facility with character, as though it’s not enough to be a measly fiction writer; you have to possess some kind of scientific credential as well. But isn’t the job of the fiction writer to understand people? Jane Austen wasn’t a psychotherapist. Henry James wasn’t a psychotherapist. And I’d say they understood the human psyche pretty well. Surely it’s as accurate to suggest that Bloom is a good psychotherapist because she’s also a fiction writer.

Yet how to explain Bloom’s enduring quality of nonjudgment? How to explain the way she plumbs and yet does not critique the human psyche? How to explain the tenderness she elicits from the reader for her characters? Here I am, in the same place other, wiser reviewers have arrived before me: Let’s just say it’s because she’s a psychotherapist. It’s as good an explanation as the elusive quality we call empathy.