The protagonist in the novel I’m editing has likeable qualities. If she were perfect, though, one couldn’t imagine her as a real person. It does make me wonder…how much does a reader need to love the main character in a story? I read many reviews where the reader complains, “I just didn’t like that main character” and it only goes downhill from there. Of course, I care about her, as I’m her literary “mom.” But she’s edgy. She’s done some awful things. She struggles to be a good self and often fails.
Someone once told me that authors are the cruelest people in the world…that we draw characters only to subject them to terrible events, flawed relationships and abuse. This is true. Without conflict, there’s no story and without adversity, there’s no conflict. Outside cartoons, few readers will tolerate a nervous Nell, whose only personal issue or problem in the world is Snidely Whiplash. Look over there, Nell. It’s Dudley Do-Right. The End.
As a flawed human who reads, I can admire a strong protagonist, but I feel a little nervous until I find a human foible. Only then can I sit back and relate. Oh, good. This is a human story.
There are degrees of faults that writers use to develop antiheroes, hoping to hold readers’ interest. Sometimes reality inspires them. It’s said that Vlad Tepes was a bloodthirsty fellow even before Bram Stoker inflated him to mythical status. In books and on television (not to mention, the evening news), asocial, sociopathic and even psychopathic protagonists abound. Serial killers. Vampires. Werewolves. Misbegotten creatures, such as Mary Shelley designed. Most frightening of may be the evil so attractive that it slips under our radar–for example, that too-handsome guy who offers to change your flat tire.
In fiction, evil may be a warning, but it can fascinate and deliver a shiver of fear. Just ask Stephen King and Anne Rice about scary fun. To add to the confusion, evil can also invoke our pity. Most antiheroes didn’t ask to be to be bitten or mauled, raised by coldhearted mothers or born with a mental oddity…or did they? Free will can be a delightfully tangled fringe to unravel in a fictional character.
Scene shift to Hitler. Few people argue that he was simply misunderstood, or that if things had gone differently for him–say, if he’d sold a few more paintings–that he wouldn’t have exterminated millions of people. I saw you cringe. I share your discomfort and it’s nothing to joke about. This reminds that, yes, there is definitely a limit to how evil a protagonist or an antihero can be. There is a line that a writer can’t successfully cross…somewhere.
Flannery O’Connor spares no inconvenience or tragedy, when it comes to sifting the souls of her characters. Those hapless individuals may sing in Sunday School, but their songs won’t save them when they slam head-on into darkness, which they find where? Inside themselves. At least one of O’Connor’s protagonists possesses zeal but scant clarity of purpose. He preaches, wraps himself in barbed wire, walks with glass in his shoes, murders and seduces (not necessarily in that order). I would not invite Hazel Motes to meet my grandchildren, but as a fictional character he looms large and clear, as does the entire novel, Wise Blood.
Will readers like my protagonist? Maybe not much at all and to tell the truth, her likeability isn’t my main concern. I do hope that readers will relate to her. My challenge is to make her real so that her story is a truly human one. Whether readers cheer her on or call for her destruction, that’s their contribution to the story. Either way, I want her to live on clearly in their minds.
For a more on this issue of heroes and antiheroes, you might enjoy Theodore Wheeler’s review of Bad Marie. She’s very, very bad and you just might like her.