I did a post on Bitten by Books a few days ago about unlikable characters, and I recently blogged for Mocha Memoirs Press about my tendency to write characters I don’t always like or agree with. It saddens me that there seems to be a growing trend lately to favor “nice” protagonists, those that don’t cause a whole lot of trouble but have extraordinary things happen to them. This also seems to be the staple of chick lit. There’s the geeky-but-not-really introvert who just needs to lose her glasses and meet the right guy or get out for a weekend to have her whole life jump started!
Apparently there are a whole lot of authors who have never met people or have never dated. Life is messy. People are weird – even good people. I get that we want to escape into a book, I get that we want a bland enough protagonist that we can insert our viewpoint into it and live vicariously. While I get that’s a safe bet for YA fiction and coming of age stories, I’m disturbed that not only does this seem to be a growing trend overall, but that readers completely turn their nose up at anything that doesn’t fit a limited view of what a protagonist should be.
I love broken characters. I prefer to write them, actually. I love to read them. There is a fine line, however – you can’t make them angsty for angst’s sake. That doesn’t work, isn’t realistic, and the unnecessary drama it produces grows old fast. Destroyed, tragic antiheroes that yank around our emotions with every little decision and thought aren’t what I’m talking about here.
At our core, we’re all flawed somewhat. I’ve said before that everyone has a story, and with life’s odds it’s safe to assume that everyone has at least one painful or shameful chapter that they’d wish they could skim over. I like seeing a character that can overcome their flaws and personal obstacles, honestly. It makes me feel like there’s hope for myself.
Let’s face it: It’s not really realistic or feasible that I’m going to go through my life being pleasant and likable and suddenly have awesome stuff happen to me. You have to get out in the world and fall on your face or have some sort of connection that will bring interesting stuff to you. Even in romance…come on. Even the bland, pleasant heroines somehow have bangin’ bodies or are suddenly transformed into the most gorgeous gal in the world or suddenly have some secret affiliation revealed halfway through the plot because otherwise they’d. Be. Boring. Or, they’re just likable enough and then the whole magic macguffin of hot shifter/magic/vampire/whatever dude takes center because no one’s really reading the books for the heroine, anyway.
What about characters who have real issues that can’t be overcome in one fell swoop and have to learn to love through trial and error instead of seeking an instant fix in a hot partner and maybe it works out and maybe it doesn’t? What about the unlikeable characters who get dragged on adventures and have to face their own demons or work through their own pasts?
I love Heart Shaped Box because Judas Coyne’s journey is as much reconciling how he treats other people as it is trying to get rid of the ghost that’s haunting him. I love A Wrinkle in Time and all the other books in the series because Meg has self esteem issues and doesn’t necessarily like the people she’s sent to save in some cases. Her daughter Poly does some eyebrow-raising things, as well, in her books, but still manages to emerge victorious with some added knowledge about herself.
Characters like Andrew in The Other Man or JK Asmodeus in In the Red are not people that I necessarily like, or like completely. Even characters like Nobody or Paddlelump in Olde School have their frustrating moments for various reasons and that’s okay. The thing is, it’s not my job to make every character a likable one – even my protagonists. What I want, instead, is for them to have some aspect that I can identify or empathize with, something that makes me want to see their story through. With Andrew and JK it was frustration at life, even if I disagree with what they did with that emotion. I actually came to like JK quite a bit as I continued his journey and realized how in over his head he was and that he’d never been given or taken a real chance to prove or think for himself. Nobody is infuriating, but she has her reasons, and I think there’s still room for her to progress and grow, such as she is. Paddlelump needed to get out of his fretful tendency to stagnate and wallow in his naivete. They all drove me a bit crazy, but they all are important to their stories. If they were just likable people or creatures who things happened to, their stories would be over in a hurry or wouldn’t be as fascinating as they ended up being. Even my shorts have them: Andrew in The Other Man, half the cast of Mooner, Holly in Holly and Ivy – you could argue that all of these characters have huge shortcomings that could (and sometimes do) end up in disastrous resolutions.
I get asked how I can write people like that, and the answer’s easy. I try to find something in myself that connects me to them. I may not have the same experiences they do, but if I know their core motivation, if I can understand it in some form, then I can write them all day long. All it takes is being willing to put in the work and a healthy amount of empathy.
The heroes in Greek myths were adulterous and violent and were still lauded. Fairy tale characters by nature are naive or mean and make the wrong choices. Characters like Batman will always be somewhat more interesting than Superman (depending on who the writer is), because at his core Bruce Wayne plain has a more interesting starting point.
We all have our moments. We all have our flaws. We all have those times we’re brought to our knees by life or ashamed of how we treated someone. We all deserve the chance to believe that we could be better, though, and that’s what I love about writing broken and flawed characters. I want to give them a chance to put themselves back together and to be more than what they start out as. I can’t get that growth or arc if they’re just there. All the magic or trickery in the world can’t decorate a cake that isn’t there. Think of how many people have felt similar things or had similar experiences that aren’t necessarily represented in fiction. Think of all that could be done with that if we expanded our world view beyond “nice” and “appropriate.”
How do you like your characters? Is there a “broken” character that you like or identify with that others don’t?
Wanna meet some of my characters in all their flawed glory? Feel free to learn about all my work and those that inhabit them here.