Last year, Penn Badgley and I talked with the PEN/Faulkner foundation about my You novels, You Netflix, and all things Joe Goldberg. Penn said something that stuck with me:
“I think in the book, the world is inherently, because it’s a book, so much more detailed and vivid, and you have the time to make everything real.”
I have had the world’s best readership since 2014, when my first book debuted. And I have been with these readers as millions of people around the world get hooked on You Netflix. (Mind permanently blown, thank you as in you.) I love to see people who watch You discover the books. I agree with Penn. Watching You and reading You are two different things, because watching and reading are different activities. Both are great.
Penn has inviting, intelligent eyes. You like to watch him do good things and it’s conflicting when he does bad things…but he just did that good thing…but oh no, is this the problem with this world? That we…want to like him?
That’s the magic trick of TV. You are on the outside, watching a world on a screen. Books are made of words, 100% words. It’s just you and the pages. I hope to use my words to lure you, the reader, into the mind of a narrator who is sharing his internal monologue with you, just you.
And it’s tricky. I want you like it in his head, even if you don’t like him. I want him to throw you off balance. If you like reading about this murderer, does that mean you like him? In this medium, my goal is to reach the reader, to make the reader complicit in bringing Joe to life.
So, let’s face it. Yes, I want you to like him…at least a little bit.
Likability is a word we hear about a lot. It’s a lightning rod word concept that sparks a lot of heated conversations.
God, was it fun for me to make Beck, to create Love and Mary Kay, these women who deal with the burden on all women for so long, to make the world a sweeter place, to be liked. To be likable. To understand that men are sensitive, even if they don’t show it.
That’s a lot, so maybe that’s why the women I write are not always so likable. Maybe that’s why we can feel for Joe because he does see the struggles that these women are enduring. For me, to like a character on the page is to care about them, to feel for them, to wish that they didn’t have so much pressure to be likable in the first place.
When I started writing You I was nervous. Could I pull this off? So I did things to anchor myself in the world. I decided that Joe and I share the same birthday. I planted Beck in the best apartment I ever lived in in New York City, when I was a young aspiring writer.
Lou Reed died while I was writing about Benji in the cage, so Lou Reed dies when Benji is in the cage in the book.
Sometimes I worried, as you do: Why do I like these people? What is wrong with me that they’re all so awful and I’m sitting here smiling? Oh well. I do! So on I go!
Liking the people you read about is not the same as as liking someone in real life. I was thinking a lot about how much our world is changed. I develop characters because I am drawn to their unique struggles in this world. That doesn’t mean I want them to prevail and it doesn’t mean I want to have lunch with them. It means I feel for them. More importantly, it means it is fun to feel for them.
I know I feel for Hannibal Lecter. I feel for Annie Wilkes. This does not mean I think they are well balanced healthy individuals with whom I wish to have lunch. I do not root for them to eat people, to kill.
But in those moments where I feel for them and I question myself for why that is, what I means, well, I know I like that.