Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Unlikeable Protagonists...Bah humbug.

I finally have some time--a whole bulbous whack of it--and I'm paralyzed. I could finish my current WIP. No wait--write three more books. Four??? Or I could clean my house. Or sand and stain the stairs. Or sit and do nothing. Sigh. Okay--not nothing--sit and listen to audio books! Bliss.

I just finished listening to The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's one of those novels I'd always meant to read but never got around to it. I can't tell you how captivated I was by Mary and Dicken and Colin--one of those books I wanted to go on forever--the kind that left me happy and satisfied and yet so very sad when it ended because I never wanted it to end.
But, here's the thing. Mary--at the start of the novel--is a very unlikeable character. She is spoiled and snobby and miserable, a waif of a creature who doesn't even pretend to hide her disdain for people and the world. True, she was made to be unlikeable by the lack of parental love and care and the society in which she was raised. Still, when first I met her, I just plain didn't like her. And yet, she hooked me. I knew the novel would be about her journey, her growth as a human being, her enlightenment and ultimately, her redemption (all via the secret garden and the folk surrounding her) and I found this absolutely fascinating. Mary, like so many great unlikeable protagonists (Ebenezer Scrooge is one of my all-time favourite), developed over the course of the novel. I personally find these characters and their stories infinitely more exciting than those who are nice and good and morally unscathed from the onset and remain consistently such throughout the novel.

So why is it then that many works are criticized as having unlikeable protagonists? I've heard this comment in critique groups again and again. And how many writers have their work rejected citing this simple equation: Unlikeable protagonist = prompt rejection by editors who dislike (and I'm assuming therefore) don't feel a strong enough connection to the protagonist. Perhaps it's just that: It's not that a character must be positive and likable, but that the reader should feel a strong connection to that character from the onset. So how does a writer achieve this? How does one make their reader connect and cling desperately to a foul, selfish, dark character? How do you make an unlikeable character compelling?

Here's one quote:

NON-HEROIC PROTAGONIST.
The non-heroic protagonist can be anything from an ordinary Joe (or Joanna) to a victim to a very flawed personality or an anti-hero. These warts-and-all characters are fascinating to create, and they can seem very real. When drawing a character in one of these modes, you must always consider the impact on the reader. A too-ordinary Joe can seem dull, and so readers will lose interest. A victim can seem weak, and a deeply flawed character can be so unlikeable that readers will turn away. An anti-hero will probably be a character who makes wickedness seem charming or appealing, or at least excusable.
It is quite possible to have an unlikable protagonist or co-protagonist. If you choose this route, you need to decide whether your character is evil, misguided, distasteful or wickedly charming. If s/he has redeeming features, they must be believable.Read more at Suite101:
Creative Writing 101 - free Suite101 course http://www.suite101.com/lesson.cfm/16712/261/3#ixzz0tZMChkrF

Does the secret lie then in giving your rude, impatient, loathsome character at least one redeeming quality? Something to which the readers can connect so that they desperately hope for this flawed character to succeed much like routing for the underdog in sporting events?

I think I'm personally in love with the theme of redemption. I'm fascinated with discovering and understanding the reasons why a character might say or do awful things. I love watching these characters grow and in even some minor way, succeed. May there be many more Marys in the books that lie ahead!

4 comments:

out of the wordwork said...

Hi Marina: Fascinating post - and one I completely agree with! It's much more fun to see how a character can overcome their flaws or to find that kernel of goodness that makes you understand and empathize with them.
Nelsa

Marina Cohen said...

Thanks for reading my lonely blog, Nelsa! And I'm happy you agree! I like charming, fun characters as much as the next person but they don't haunt me like Holden Caulfield or Heathcliff or, um okay, Darth Vader...:)

savantefolle said...

Excellent thoughts on this subject. I like my YA protagonist to be "imperfect. My last series' adolescent character, Chaaas, is irascible, impulsive, proud and full of received ideas, but also generous and brave. He makes errors, and must work hard to amend them. I utterly go for the redemption angle.

But, as you say, too imperfect may be scorned at in YA world. I wrote once a very imperfect heroin (scared at her shadow, naïve, but witty) as a narrator, which gave her an ironic voice in recalling the events surrounding the mission she's (against her wishes) plunged in. The editor didn't like the "anti heroin angle" at first for a YA novel. But eventually, it worked.

Michèle
Mississauga

Marina Cohen said...

Michele--it was wonderful meeting you! Your books sound amazing! I hope you find the translator you are searching for!