Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Unsympathetic Protagonist

When writing character-driven fiction, an author presupposes, in a way, that a reader's love for the characters will carry the story through any slower-paced plot elements.  As a result, authors of all genres have written a host of articles and even entire books on creating well-developed sympathetic characters.  (See Mette Ivie Harrison's "How to Write a Sympathetic Protagonist" or Amie Kaufman's "Do I Care? Make Me! How to Create Sympathetic Characters," for starters.)  Such guides to character creation often promote many of the same basic principles.  Give the character something to love and to protect.  Make them the underdog fighting against injustice.  Give them some sort of connection to the other characters around them.

Then, my personal favorite: give them flaws.  No one wants to read a story about Perfect Payton or Extraordinary Erin.  Readers need to connect with the raw humanity of the characters, that part of them that makes us all think, "If they can do it, why can't I?"  For me personally as a reader, the hearts of well-written characters shine not in their light, but in their darkness.

My favorite character in the Harry Potter universe is Draco Malfoy.  Full stop.  He's a brat, a bully, a coward, and a bigot.  His only truly redeeming quality is his love for and devotion to his parents, who are also brats, bullies, cowards, and bigots.  In fact, his only truly sympathetic moment in the whole series (in my opinion) comes when he and Harry find themselves locked in a duel that almost costs Draco his life.  Even then, as Harry stands shocked by his own capacity for evil, the malicious part of me cackles in glee to see Draco get what's coming to him.

Then my heart stops as I wonder, "What if he's dead?"  I can't bear to watch that scene in the movie anymore.  That I've committed the storyline to heart--that I know he will be fine, if still nigh on unbearable--means nothing.  I need him to keep on living, to keep on giving Harry that foil against which Harry will quite obviously always overcome.

I think I love Draco Malfoy not so much for himself, but for how his repetitive confrontations with Harry shatter Harry's perception of himself as a good person.  Harry realizes in that bathroom that he could just as easily be the villain as the hero were he to make different choices.  Draco, for all his flaws, provides Harry with that moment of insight, and I love him all the more for that.

When viewed objectively, many of my favorite characters in fiction border on the unbearable.  Catherine Linton, nee Earnshaw, in Wuthering Heights, is little more than a pretentious coward.  Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, throughout most of the series, uses the people around her as tools to get what she wants.  In Catherine's case, we can still feel sympathy because we realize how stifling the social structure of her time would be to a woman.  Even as we scorn Katniss as selfish, we can value how she becomes the face of justice, even if her overarching desire is to protect only herself and those few she loves.  Both of the women have some redeeming qualities, but it's fairly easy to understand why critics might disparage them as sympathetic characters.

My fiction often bears the inevitable result of my personal tastes in characters. My stories (when I am most satisfied with them) are littered with characters that I recognize some readers might find unsympathetic.  When writing fiction, the question for me becomes not so much "how do I write a sympathetic character?" as it does "how do I take this downright terrible person that I love and make an audience fall in love with her--or even just love to hate her?"  Similar questions, different foci.

As I was just beginning to expand my horizons as a storyteller, I put together a little "anti-romance" short story called "Purple and Pumpkin Spice."  The one thing that startled me about my audience's response was how vehemently they embraced one character over another.  Some loved the protagonist.  Some loved her husband.  Some loved her secondary love interest.  Some loved the quirky best friend.  None of my readers seemed to agree on which character they liked most, and in some instances readers expressed diametrically opposed opinions of the characters.  Mind you, I intentionally wrote the piece so that there were no "bad guys." At the end of the day, each character was a human who sometimes made a poor choice (or series of choices).  Some of those choices led to others getting hurt.  I'd like to think the characters were somewhat sympathetic, but I knew they were very far from perfect.

My all-time favorite comment from a reader really nailed why I think some people enjoyed the piece:
I actually had to delete some of my initial review comments and rethink what I really thought about the story. So, before I start the review let me explain what I am talking about.
I hated your main character. I thought she was selfish and self-involved. I initially transferred that hate to your story and was writing to you about having a main character that resonates with a reader and blah blah blah. But as I was writing and referencing back to your story, it dawned on me that my strong reaction to Susan was a perfect indicator of how well structured and written this story is. I stepped back and read the story again and was so glad I caught myself before finishing my review.
I am a husband and I realized I was projecting my feelings on your character with the idea if my wife had done the same to me I would hate her. So long story short (too late, right?), I checked myself and came at your story from a fair perspective. But, the strong emotional response you generated is a testament to the strength of this story. Susan became real to me - real enough to hate.
Strangely enough, reading that story of hate turned to appreciation became the moment that I thought maybe, one day, I would be good enough to call myself a writer.  I have no delusions that my story was perfect, or even really well done.  But the connection one reader had to a character he hated made me a devotee of the art.

And therein, I think, lies the secret to successfully writing an unlikeable, perhaps even completely unsympathetic protagonist.  We as readers must somehow connect with the character, regardless of how much we loathe her.  We have to understand why she does the terrible things she does, even if we would like to think we would handle things differently.  Moreover, we have to watch how other characters interact with her and identify with the connections there.  Susan's story, unlikeable though she may have been, found an audience because people could connect with the characters who loved her.

As an author, I relate well to the otherwise unlikeable protagonist, and inevitably, those are the characters whose stories I love to tell.  What do you think?  Have you ever found a protagonist you loathed, even though the story itself left you breathless?  Have you written a story around a protagonist you love to hate?  

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