Illustration by Ellen Budell of two individuals participating in a Trust Exercise
The novel is its own trust exercise for readers, but definitely one that pays off. (Illustration by Ellen Budell, Benedictine College)

‘Trust Exercise’ Takes a Worthwhile Risk With Unlikable Characters

Susan Choi’s novel defies conventional wisdom about fiction and intentionally creates characters that are hard to relate to — making a unique, compelling read in the process.

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Illustration by Ellen Budell of two individuals participating in a Trust Exercise

Susan Choi’s novel defies conventional wisdom about fiction and intentionally creates characters that are hard to relate to — making a unique, compelling read in the process.

Likable characters live at the heart of countless beloved novels. Authors know that the most surefire way to write a successful page-turner is to create characters so compelling that readers cannot help but care about them. In the novel “Trust Exercise,” Susan Choi deliberately and boldly turns this idea on its head. She rejects the notion that character likability is an inherent trait of a great book. Instead, she allows the novel’s unique structure and vivid language to carry the story.

Choi’s intentional lack of likable characters can make the novel difficult to get through. In fact, she almost tempts you to put the book down by crafting distant characters who seem to do nothing but make things worse for themselves. As a reader, you’ll want to scream at the characters rather than empathize with them. However, this is no reason to stop reading the book.

Readers should instead take advantage of the opportunity “Trust Exercise” presents to reconsider the definition of a “good” book. Choi’s work proves that likable characters do not have to be at the center of a successful novel. So long as the structure and language of the book can powerfully capture readers’ attention, characters have the freedom to be as unlikable as the author desires.

“Trust Exercise” is set in an unnamed, southern American town in the early 1980s. In the novel, high schoolers deal with the stresses of attending the rigorous Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts while navigating the hardships of adolescence. Choi focuses on the complicated, painful romantic relationship and breakup between students Sarah and David. The book predominantly follows events from Sarah’s perspective as she grieves her lost relationship with David and partakes in risky teenage behavior to numb her pain.

But then, the story changes. Nearly 131 pages into the book, Choi blasts the characters about 15 years into the future. Readers discover that the book they thought they were reading was actually a novel by adult Sarah based on her high school experiences. Choi then begins telling the story from the perspective of a student named Karen rather than Sarah. Karen was only a seemingly trivial secondary character in Sarah’s novel. But it turns out that Karen played a much more important role in Sarah’s high school life than Sarah lets on in her book.

The rest of “Trust Exercise” highlights the adult lives of Karen, Sarah and David, underscoring how they have never been able to free themselves from the troubles and traumas of their youth.

I admit that until I reached the 131st page, I seriously considered giving up on the book. The characters in “Trust Exercise” are excruciatingly difficult to like. Sarah, David and the rest of their classmates seem to be too busy wallowing in their adolescent self-pity to try and better things for themselves. Meanwhile, the adults in their lives are either completely out of the loop or actively engaging in behaviors that harm the teenagers.

Take their teacher, Mr. Kingsley. He purposefully pries into students’ personal lives to get them to access authentic emotions in their acting classes. He also behaves in an exhaustingly unpredictable manner that wears down the teens. Most disturbingly, he engages in an inappropriate relationship with one (and probably more) of his students.

The book does thoroughly address Mr. Kingsley’s inexcusable behavior in the second half. However, it is tiring to initially witness him behave inappropriately with no hint that he will face any repercussions. Moreover, there is at first little evidence that any character thinks he should face consequences.

Choi’s brilliant use of language proves to be the saving grace of the first half of “Trust Exercise.” Her rich and intense writing is unlike anything I have ever come across. She vividly details the intricacies of her characters’ thoughts in dense sentences that sometimes go on for a paragraph or more. Rather than being difficult to follow, these gruelingly long sentences tell full stories in and of themselves, making them fascinating to read.

Additionally, Choi fluidly jumps between the minds of different characters, keeping me on my toes while reading. I was also entertained by her inclusion of just the right amount of wit and sarcasm in an otherwise serious story. Somehow, Choi manages to craft language that is simultaneously as abstract and beautiful as poetry, yet as specific and mundane as the dialogue between characters on a sitcom. Without this incredible use of language, I would have surely put the book down for good before reaching the unexpected jump forward in time.

Once the fast-forward happens, the unique structure of the book builds on the great language, further making up for the lack of likable characters. Nonetheless, caring about the characters still proves challenging. But this challenge is entirely intentional on Choi’s part. She goes out of her way create a distance between reader and character.

For example, Choi explicitly states that the names she has given the characters are not even their real names, declaring “Does it matter to anyone, apart from ‘Karen,’ what ‘Karen’s’ real name is?” She also explains that some characters might not even be representative of one person, but rather symbolize multiple people or a type of person.

This intentional distance poses a question that most readers are not used to wrestling with: Do I need to care about characters to care about what happens to them? Before reading “Trust Exercise,” I would have been adamant that the answer to that question is “yes.” However, Choi’s writing successfully revealed to me that character likability is not as essential to a good book as I have been conditioned to believe.

Readers of contemporary fiction like myself have become attached to the idea that they must want to be friends with characters in the literature they read in order to like it. People have written countless articles aimed at helping writers make their characters likable. But what does “likable character” even mean? And why has the phenomenon of likable characters become such a crutch for authors trying to write a good book? Or for readers to decide if they enjoy what they are reading?

Readers like characters who are exciting to root for even though they have flaws and make mistakes. As author Janice Hardy points out, likable characters exhibit strength in the face of adversity, display compassion for others and dream big. Despite their imperfections, readers still care about them and want them to succeed because the characters themselves want to succeed.

A “likable character” can also refer to a character that readers love to hate. Readers still “like” these characters in the sense that they keep things interesting and propel the plot. These villain-type characters also might surprise readers with their complex backstories, revealing their unpredictable path to villainy.

The characters in “Trust Exercise” do not fit into either of these categories. They tend to run from their problems rather than confront them. They are often too busy worrying about themselves to even consider showing anyone else compassion. Though Mr. Kingsley is one of the book’s villains, I just hated him rather than loved to hate him. His unpredictability was frustrating, not interesting.

Additionally, his inexcusable behavior made it impossible to care about any sort of backstory he had, even if Choi had provided one. Mr. Kingsley was simply there, making the lives of the characters hard for no discernible reason other than because he had the power to do so.

Author Jennifer Ellis explains that the most likable literary characters have agency. This is perhaps the most striking trait that the “Trust Exercise” characters lack. Plenty of things happen to the characters, but they do little to make things happen for themselves. Although Karen comes close to breaking this mold in the second half, I still found myself wishing she would do just a little bit more to stand up for herself. In the novel, circumstance moves the plot along more than any deliberate actions of the characters themselves.

Despite these shortcomings, I still firmly believe that “Trust Exercise” is a good book. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it due to Choi’s intentionality about subverting the expectation of character likability. As many reviews have pointed out, the book takes its own title to heart and functions as a trust exercise between author and reader. For 131 pages, Choi tells one story (Sarah’s novel). But she then reveals that Sarah’s story is a warped version of the reality the characters in Choi’s own novel actually experienced.

This feat of structural deception, combined with her incredible use of language, overshadows the unlikable characters. In turn, Choi demonstrates that her story is much bigger than any one specific character’s experiences.

Though brilliant, Choi’s focus on structure and language as opposed to character is a brave literary risk to take. Not everyone has enjoyed “Trust Exercise.” Plenty of readers have taken to sites like Goodreads to express their difficulty getting through the book, often complaining about the lack of relatability. Their disappointment proves that people find it hard to let go of the desire for likable literary characters.

“Trust Exercise” has undoubtedly grabbed the attention of the literary world. It won the 2019 National Book Award for fiction and is the recipient of plenty of critical acclaim. Through its stunning structure and language, Choi sharply confronts themes involving a slew of both timely and timeless topics, including the bad behavior of adults, adolescent agony, ethics surrounding sexual consent, friendship, betrayal and revenge.

Readers should challenge themselves to tackle this book because it has the power to change the way they evaluate literature. By proving that characters do not have to be likable, “Trust Exercise” displays the importance of authors experimenting with risky literary strategies that readers are not used to confronting.

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