Disclaimer: This will be ranty and disjointed. I can never think clearly when I’m editing. Plus I’ve had too much coffee this morning. (Disclaimer #2: A little clickbait never hurt anyone. *wink*)
So I was editing my novel a few minutes ago (me??? editing??? what is this?!), and I realized that… I don’t really like my main character???
Now, granted, I’ve known that for a while, but it just now hit me.
Beta readers of this book (The Art of Letting Go, which you can learn about here because it’s been so long that I posted about it that my readers probably forgotten about it) understand this, because they know her. (And, hey, if you’ve read it and you feel this way, let me know in the comments!)
But, just in case you don’t, here’s the gist: Daniella James is a very complicated young woman, made even more so by the fact that (spoiler) her boyfriend dies. Killed right in front of her. She’s already got Mommy & Daddy Issues, and those are complicated by the loss of her future and only security (which she’d wrapped up in her boyfriend).
Start out with an anxiety-ridden, pessimistic teenage girl, multiply it by a million, add a dash of cynicism, and you’ve got Danni.
I knew from the get-go that Danni would be different from my previous protag, Nikki, but I didn’t know how different. Now, four drafts later, she’s basically Nikki’s polar opposite. She’s rash and negative and cusses and doesn’t really believe in any kind of higher power and doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions and I honestly don’t know if we’d be friends in real life.
(Obviously she changes by the end into a more likable person, but for a good chunk of the book – the first third at least – she’s not the greatest person in the world.)
This got me thinking… why write characters that you, at best, disagree with? Or even, at the very worst, don’t like?
The short answer is character change.
Good books thrive on conflict. Boring books have no conflict. Who wants to read about a static character? Um, not me.
So if a book has to start out with a faulty character so that they’ll change for the better because of the circumstances they have to go through, bring me that character.
I’m fascinated with faulty characters. Give me the bad boys and let me cheer for them as they’re put through trials that break their hardened shell and reveal the softer young man inside. (I’m specifically thinking about Bender from The Breakfast Club or Jughead Jones from Riverdale.)
The other day, I watched a made-for-TV drama based on the life of Michael Glatze, a gay activist who slowly lets go of his gay identity after becoming a Christian, eventually renouncing it, taking on the identity of a heterosexual man, marrying a woman, and becoming a Christian pastor. It. was. fascinating. Although I thought the movie was poorly made (it tried too hard to be artistic and some of the actors couldn’t do their jobs very well because of the stilted script) and although I disagreed with some of it (both with some of the things the homosexual characters and even some of the heterosexual, Christian characters said), I’m still thinking about it. It challenged me. (Here’s the trailer. Bear in mind that this movie is TV-MA for language and some sexual scenes, and I still don’t know how the director wanted to portray Michael, but you can do some Googling and read exactly what he’s said on the subject.)
All this to say, what are your thoughts on unreliable or unlikable protagonists? Have you encountered any of these lately in movies or books? Did they change or were they more likable by the end? What changed? Let’s talk!