Thursday, November 20, 2008

The too-flawed protagonist

If your protagonist has flaws that are too deep or serious, will readers be turned off?

I wondered about this yesterday, when another writer expressed concerns about a protagonist who was a racist.

"Protagonists are meant to be likable, you're meant to be able to sympathize with them. So if your protagonist is racist, and it's put across that this is a kind of core characteristic of his that is meant to be acceptable, then me and a lot of other people will put the book down."

I've read, and enjoyed, books where the protagonists are drug addicts*, pedophiles**, cold-blooded murderers*** and rapists****. I’d add cannibals, assassins and incestuous would-be child-killers to the list, but that would be way too many asterisks.

These characters worked for me because they have excellent qualities to balance their serious flaws – they’re intelligent, ambitious, amusing and loyal to their friends. They also face challenges that are seemingly insurmountable, and they win. So it’s easy for me to cheer for them. In fact, if you make your characters realistic and sympathetic enough, the flaws will actually work for them. Sure, readers will think, Sherlock Holmes may be a cocaine addict, but he’s our cocaine addict. And far more palatable than a flawless saint. It’s all right, Mr. Holmes, we understand.

Should a writer make it clear that such flaws are unacceptable? That raises another question: what would be considered acceptable? If a protagonist was racist at the start of the book, and is a racist at the end, might readers take this to mean that the writer subtly endorses racism? Does the writer have to condemn the belief or behavior, either through the mouthpieces of other characters or through the story itself?

That reminds me of a book I once read where the antagonist brainwashes a woman, makes her believe that she’s his daughter and then sexually assaults her. The narrative states that he “kissed her as no father should ever kiss a daughter”. I immediately thought, At least not his own daughter.

I think going to this extent to show that the writer doesn’t approve can backfire. Most readers already know that incest, racism, murder, etc. are wrong, and don’t need to have this spelled out to them.

It doesn’t always work if the writer tries to be more subtle, either. I’ve read too many stories where characters who are racist or misogynistic or atheistic are shown the errors of their ways, at which point they repent wholeheartedly and embrace their newfound principles. It just doesn’t happen that way in real life. In reality, people with prejudices rarely give them up so easily, and the most fanatically intolerant fundamentalist can have good reasons (good to them, anyway) to hold certain opinions and beliefs.

So I’m in favor of letting readers make up their own minds whether a character’s traits are positive or negative – and I like characters who have both of these traits to begin with.

*Sherlock Holmes.
**Jericho Moon, Matthew Woodring Stover.
***The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough
****The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand


ChristaCarol said...

As always, enjoy the insight. Thanks.

writtenwyrdd said...

I recall not liking the Thomas Covenant series of books back in the 80s because the protag was a rapist and a self-involved jerk. Yet he was the hero, and had to grow beyond his nastiness. No matter what, I hated him and couldn't finish the books.

I noticed you have linked to me! thanks so much! I like your insightful posts and shall reciprocate.

Marian said...

Hi writtenwyrdd,

Your site is great! I found Lawrence Watt-Evans's site through a link in one of your posts and got to read his new Ethshar novel. Thanks. :)

I started Lord Foul's Bane, got to the scene where Covenant raped Lena and couldn't continue. It's great that the author took such a risk, and even by itself the rape might not have crossed a line (though the few rapist heroes in books I've enjoyed have committed the crimes in the past/backstory, rather than in real time before the eyes of the readers).

But Covenant just didn't seem to have any positive qualities that made up for the rape. As you said, he was self-involved. Even after the rape, his immediate reaction was "wow, I am fully functional again!" rather than "dear god, I just raped a teenage girl."

The leprosy angle was fascinating, though. Too bad.