Two Pronouns and a Funeral

“Barring that natural expression of villainy which we all have, the man looked honest enough.” ~Mark Twain

The word anti-hero has been thrown around a lot lately. The concept of a mandatory likable protagonist has also made its loathsome rounds. Both proponents have aspects of them, and applications, that are correct. In the wrong context, and paired with the wrong character, however, they can be devastating to fiction. Allow me to expound.

But  wait … won’t an unlikable protagonist kill the narrative?

No, not unless you’re writing a romance novel. In that case, one of your two leads has to make up for the other’s initial likability issues. But barring that sole exception, no … this is a myth.

But wait … doesn’t your reader have to care enough to read on?

No shit. I mean, really, does anyone NOT believe that? Come on. I can think of TONS of horror novels whose main characters weren’t the least bit likable, but the story/plot/secondary characters were all interesting enough to propel the narrative to the end. Likability has nothing at all to do with whether or not a reader will carry on reading. Compelling is the word you’re looking for.

Hate me or love me … doesn’t matter whether you love the lead or hate them in the beginning, the motivation has to be there in enough measure to make you either want to see the character get his/her ass handed to them; Or, you have to like them enough to see them triumph. There is a breadth of psychological reasoning behind why merely ‘liking’ a character isn’t sufficient motivation to care what happens to them.

Think of it this way … how many funerals have you not attended for people you liked, but didn’t love? We’ve all been there. A distant relative, a neighbor, a classmate, a sort-of-co-worker … you liked them, but not enough to feel comfortable going to their funeral.

On the other hand, and be honest here, how many people have you known (directly or indirectly) whose death (untimely or otherwise) brought a tad bit of … dude totally had it coming? Keep in mind, this includes famous serial killers who were put to death.

So really, you have to create one or more of the following emotional environments:

1). Interest enough in the plot to compel your reader to rubberneck the impending train wreck.

2). Love enough for one of your leads to compel your reader to weep at the figurative funeral.

3). Hate enough for one of your leads to create an urgent sense of heroism (justice needs to be done here) and compel your reader to emotional action.

Still think I’m full of it? OK, fair enough, how about some examples from books that have done well? And keep in mind too that these aren’t anti-heroes. Not by definition anyway.

* The Shining, Stephen King: “Here’s Johnny!”

* Just about anything Jane Austen has ever written: Can we say, Mr. Darcy?

* Just about anything Bentley Little has ever written: The Resort anyone? What about The Vanishing?

* Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment (Dostojevsky): If anyone did like him right off the bat, please enlighten me as to why.

* Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Come on … you can’t argue with this one. You KNEW he had it coming.

* Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair by, William Makepeace Thackeray. She grows on you eventually.

* Just about everyone from Lolita by, Vladimir Nabokov.

* Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by, Emily Bronte: And Catherine for that matter. But who’s counting?

* (I’d be remiss not to include this) Garren from Son of Ereubus by, J.S. Chancellor (ahem … that’s me).

And what about movies with unlikable protagonists?

* The whole cast of Blair Witch Project: No, really, go watch it again.

* Just about anyone in the whole of Stanley Kubrick’s portfolio: Brilliant characters, but … likable? I suppose it depends on your definition.

* Napoleon from Napoleon Dynamite: He rocked … he was a train wreck … but again, likable? Not really.

* Martin, from Martin: That’s kind of a trump card, I know …

I’m slowly realizing that this movie list could go on forever. There are too many horror movies to name them all, and a whole host of science fiction flicks. Frankly, I love Star Wars, but Han, Luke and Leia were all kind of a pain in the ass to start off with. Just go back and watch the scene where they’re about to get squished in the trash compactor and listen to all the whining and screaming. They become likable, but for me … definitely not right off the bat.

Bottom line, is that regardless of whether or not he/she is likable, so long as your protagonist is compelling your reader to either attend the ‘funeral’ or cheer at the ‘execution’ … then you’re good!

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31 responses

  1. THANK YOU!
    Too many people assume you need to create this path of directional signs for the reader. Most new writers get into the habit of needing a great protagonist who embodies all of their ambitions and positive features…

    The real point to writing anything is creating a feeling of urgency and curiosity. Characters be damned, if your plot is boring there’s going to be nothing that drags the audience to the next page or scene. And if your reader isn’t reading, excuse the exploitation of the obvious here, they aren’t your reader!

    I do want to point out to any casual onlooker of this post that associability is different than likability. Associability is what can turn a good character into a great character but it doesn’t have to concern itself with whether the associated trait is positive or negative. We associate with John Kramer, from the SAW movies simply by our collective distaste for apathy (although with most, it is hypocritical) . The same can be said about Magneto from the X-Men franchise, but his connection with us is his previous persecution and his anger at seeing his fellow mutants segregated and discriminated against. The fact that their reactions are beyond extreme just make their stories more interesting. They are doing things we could never do, even if we had the resources. They share some notions of our humanity, yet they have shrugged off the social convictions and replaced them with their own. True, I am using antagonists for this, but through the course of these series, the villains have, at times, become the main focus. They have become bigger than the other characters due to how interesting they are.

    Let’s go to another character, a protagonist who runs the rim of likability… Macbeth.
    Debate over his protagonist status aside (he IS, dammit, he IS the protagonist!!), he wants to be set in life. He’s in a position of power, a position he’s doing well in. He’s celebrated! He’s loved! But I’ll be a sonnofabitch if he didn’t marry into lucifer’s family tree. There he is, urged by his wife to kill the man who has been praising him, pin it on the man’s own sons no less and then assume the title for himself. But there’s some dark part in a lot of us that are reading or watching him. That dark part is pulling on the back of our heads, whispering into our consciousness. It’s saying ‘you’d do the same’. Even if we really wouldn’t, Macbeth’s behavior harkens back to the time when our primitive instincts held faster than they do now. We’re bred to want power and status, it makes us safe, it makes us survive longer (unless you employ someone like macbeth, then it becomes antithetical).

    True, a character does not have to be likable in the least bit for their story to be entertaining and well-received… But there HAS to be something to associate with. There needs to be a connection or the reader simply won’t give a damn.

    None of this was a criticism to the post, it was more like an unsolicited (and therefore completely self-righteous and immoral) addendum. But even though I’m putting my own two cents in and assuming responsibility where the author clearly has domain… you’re with me right?

    In some ways, I’d like to think I proved her point. 😉

    • You did! I can associate with a whole host of assholes, but not so much with the good guys. So yeah … I totally dig where you’re coming from. And comments like that are always welcome here at the Asylum 🙂

    • P.S. You get brownie points for knowing I’m a ‘she’ in the first place. Without looking at the “About Me’ page, most assume J.S. Chancellor to be a ‘he.’

    • Aaron, you write like a writer. But I really just want to agree that the reader-motivating factor has a lot more to do with what you are calling “associability” than with likability and to add that for some of us, at least, the anti-hero/antagonist/bad guy gives us an opportunity to DISsociate, to remove the offending attribute from the backs of our heads and put it out front, where we can see it more clearly as the “other” in order to more fully and responsibly own it when it comes home to roost. Which, of course, it will do.

      Fiction, in other words, has the capacity to temporarily remove a Macbeth from the internal power struggle between the natural desire to prosper (or, as you put it, to ensure one’s own survival) and the civilized strictures against self-serving behaviors like, say, murder. To put it more simply, fiction is projection. (Yeah, I know. Duh.) But great fiction, I submit, is more than a defense mechanism. Ultimately, it’s a kind of moral work-out, the development of muscle fiber, if you will. Not a way not of codifying behavior so much as learning to intuit the gyroscopic function of one’s moral compass.

      If nothing else, this explains why so few legitimate saints, buddhas and zen masters write convincing fiction.

      • I’m glad you think I write like a writer. My wordpress in its current state may not show my initial and continuing intentions. Let me make it clear that I AM working towards becoming an author. lol.
        So… Thank you. 🙂
        (Speaking of, one of the reasons I responded to the original post was because I have a habit of sticking anti-heroes (or worse) in the protagonist spot. Unfortunately for all involved, I tend to have two main characters, one of which is most definitely an ‘innocent’ who is affected or pushed forward by the less-pure counterpart… on top of that, those two gemini opposites have to face the TRUE antagonist of the story… Great, now I’ve profiled myself…)

        (I am also (though you’ve probably found this out (discovered, if you will) by now) fond of (or, thoroughly obsessed with, depending on your view and personal preference) parenthesis.)

      • You and your sets of twins are in good company on this blog, then. Have you and J.S. talked story architecture? And (I wonder aloud) does the pairing of things influence your affinity for parentheses?

      • Aaron, some good advice I read somewhere (you should see my library!) is that your heroes can start out somewhat lacking in virtues and graces but through the story, because of what they encounter in the action and the other characters, they grow into the heroes they were supposed to be. Still flawed, maybe — Han Solo was never a perfect Knight, that’s what made him so wonderful — but able to choose the right path without really thinking about or debating it or being pushed to do it. It may take till the last third of the book, maybe even the last two chapters, but eventually, if he’s a real hero, he’ll make it.

      • to Deborah… as I cannot reply to the comment because of the count limit…

        I never said my characters didn’t change. 😉 I was leaving that part out because it wasn’t necessarily important in my statement. Thank you, though, for bringing that up because it’s a good point in this whole anti-hero, associability, dissociability, likability discussion.

        A gradually lightening (or darkening) character can often times be the most engaging because we travel with them on their journey. Like Macbeth, in fact. He begins as, quite literally, the conquering hero. He slowly degrades into something completely self-centered, leaving us to wonder and postulate if he was also so despicable or if it was pounded into him by his wife.

        One of my biggest projects I’m working on (a dark fantasy series called ‘Myth’, spanning 11 books) has a character in it named Nikko. In the very first chapter he shows up as a boy who, without saying a word, murders a father and son in a singularly brutal way. I had to take the entire chapter to describe the murders because he dragged it out for them. (the chapter is in dire need of revision… but it’s the only one I’ve written so far as the second takes the reader into a new aspect that’s practically as large as the harry potter setup. (which I am going to have to whittle down to keep from overwhelming the reader))

        This is the reader’s first introduction to the character. As the chapters go on, it initially doesn’t get much better, he’s presented as the absolute villain with a completely different character being shown in the male protagonist role. But, as reprehensible as his actions seemed in the beginning, Claire, the actual main character of the story, begins to learn more about him. She discovers that there was a method to his madness. Through dream skimming (a power she has), she finds his past and sees that there is more to life than the difference between men and monsters. She has to choose which is the darker of two evils and which one is the necessary horror.

        Apparently I don’t like to create easy stories as even the real villain is simply a complex psychological jumble of pain and anger… There’s a scene near the end of the first book between the two masculine characters that I’m salivating to write. It’s so emotional, how it is in my head, and I’m wanting to get to it and explore these new avenues with the characters.

        Nikko is a dynamic character in that, throughout the books, his mission remains the same (though he goes through his doubts) while his methods change gradually. Claire influences his decisions. He begins as a one man army, assassinating those that have wronged him… She makes him a guardian, standing between her world, and the common enemy they face.

        Then other stuff happens. lol. A LOT of other stuff… but this is the bare bones of the first book… and the overarching theme through the series. It speaks a lot to human nature and the views we have of professional killers and soldiers and rebels.

        This story has been developing for sixteen years… since I was 8 and 9 years old. I have languages, weapons, species, religions, cities, everything hammered (or hammering) out. My overachieving self decided it’d be a good idea that instead of a single new fantasy world, this story should focus on three different masses of collective cultural forces colliding together.

        To Ien…

        Nope, this post is the first I’ve commented on in this blog. Most of the time I’m discussing it with other parts of myself. I’m always interested in discussing the building blocks of literature, though. It’s an artistic science that has been sorely overlooked because most people think destroys the mystique of writing.
        As for my affinities for the injected comments, I think it’s my unending desire to be understood and communicate. Or, perhaps it’s just a mirroring of my speaking habits, as I do tend to speak in tangents which circle back around to my main thought.

  2. ~~~~”Frankly, I love Star Wars, but Han, Luke and Leia were all kind of a pain in the ass to start off with. Just go back and watch the scene where they’re about to get squished in the trash compactor and listen to all the whining and screaming. They become likable, but for me … definitely not right off the bat.”~~~~

    “You must be…the cry baby.” ~Oobedoob Scoobydoo Benubi

    If you’ve never seen Thumb Wars and you like/hate Star Wars, you have to watch it once…unless you don’t get Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, in which case don’t bother.

  3. I’m a Star Wars lover and I agree 110% Han, Luke and Leia were all pains, and so was Anakin in the former trilogy too. Guess that’s what you call growing pains.

    I love writing characters who are not totally likeable. I think it gives them room to grow but also more interest to the story in general. I used to write characters who could do no wrong–and they were, frankly, boring. (No offense to my muse. We were young and growing ourselves.) I’m glad you spoke on this subject, Breanne. I’ve tooted my horn about it to people too. Flaws are so much fun to work with. They make things…harder…but much more enjoyable to read.

  4. I think I’d be morified if the only epithet any of my characters received was ‘likeable’. Not that I don’t *want* readers to like some of them, of course. It’s just that I always prefer the characters I read about or write about to have flaws – how can they be believable without them? Also, flawed people are so much more interesting and the bigger or deeper the flaw, the more surprising they can be.

  5. Absolutely on the Star Wars! Someone once said take your characters, and give them tough stuff to deal with, then throw them into the hardest situation they could ever be in and squeeze them harder, then you’ll see what they are really made from. You can’t get much more squeezed than a trash compactor and their characters really did show through, including that Han was a Hero and a Knight even if he was a cranky, selfish one. I always found him refreshing, even at his worst.

    The cast of characters of Harry Potter are not perfect, either — intentionally. They all have their own issues and they all need each other if they are going to succeed. Hermione sees that, even if Harry doesn’t.

    Flaws are hard for me to write; it’s something I struggle with, but flawed heros are ultimately the ones I love the best. I don’t like thorougly horrid characters and I had one in my first novel, he just didn’t seem like it at first. He was the hardest for me to write but ultimately his character came through and jumped off the page. People hated him which is exactly what I wanted.

    I read a really good flawed hero in Spinward Drift 0. the author only writes on ebook and has a whole series of Spinward Drift novels; I was drawn through the original story in spite of the flawed hero because I loved his secondary cast. At the end of the novel, the main character in a fit of heroism, casts himself into the arms of his enemy and is captured. The next book in the series starts with him having no memory (it is completely wiped) and he is a different character altogether, including his name, though it’s similar; the only thing that makes us know this is the former character is that his computer is trying to save him.

    Okay, this is a bit of a tangent, but seriously, if someone is writing a series, do not change the main character in the middle, after they have already established him with the readers unless it’s for a very good reason, or like me, you will lose the reader. I simply cannot read the rest of the series because the hero is not the same guy and I don’t care what the reasons were for the switch, I LIKED the original guy and he left this woman mourning him and that bugged me.

    Flawed writer or flawed characters (maybe flawed reader?), but I didn’t think there should have been such an abrupt change. Just my thoughts on the matter.

    Thanks for the post, JS.

    • Yes!! Nothing bugs me more than when a writer sets me up to love a character, as the hero no less, then kills him halfway through the series. WTF #456 for sure. And some of my favorite writers have done this. Ugh.

      • Well, the subscription does that already, so I’m thinking the forum wouldn’t be too useful. Plus, I just looked into adding one and it’s a HUGE pain in the ass. It’s a good thought for the future though … glad you mentioned it. 🙂

  6. I have to admit I am a big fan of a well written anti-hero. I grew up reading Michael Moorcock’s Elric series and that idea of the not so bad bad guy has always lurked in the back of my mind. It’s rare these days that I come across a good anti-hero, but still far more enjoyable to me that a Mary-Sue holier-than-thou hero with no depth or flaws

  7. Ah, another one of your marvelous blog entries that feels like it was written just for me. My main character, Alecia, isn’t likable…like really at all. She’s cold, distant, sorta selfish. Most people who read it continued because they liked the world and loved the minor characters. But I’d read so many articles telling me, “Your character HAS to be likable!” that this made me nervous. Alecia needs to not be likable. It’s part of her character growth and characterization.

  8. Good post and very true. We don’t need to like the main character/protagonist/whatever, we just need to like READING about them. Are they an a-hole? Make them a clever one.

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