Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Question from the e-mail - writing tip

Question:  Someone in my writing group commented that my protagonist isn't very likeable. He's really not a very nice guy, does he have to be likeable? Can't he just be who he is?

Answer: Usually the reader identifies with the protagonist. He is "for" the main character, who is usually a "good guy."  In some cases he may be an anti- hero. Someone who finds himself acting unexpectedly in a heroic manner, and we can all identify with an underdog, most of us having been one at one time or another.

There are exceptions, of course, but main characters who lie, cheat, steal, murder or otherwise do bad things are difficult for readers to identify with. Readers aspire, yes, nearly all of them, to be admirable.  So if the main character isn't nice-- or at least motivated well enough so the reader can say, "I might have acted like that-- then they will have difficulty identifying with that main character. 

Even those who love literary stories read to experience vicariously  lives, other wheres, and other times. It was no fool who said,  "We are the sum of our experiences, not the sum of our possessions." 

When we create a story, we also create an experience for our reader. Not all such experiences have to be pleasant, but when they are unpleasant,  we must give the reader plenty of reason to stick around. Scarlet O'Hara wasn't "nice" but we all understood why she acted as she did.

Understanding why the characters act as they do is often the key.


  1. In Eric Ambler's novel, "The Light of Day", his "hero", Arthur Simpson, is downright despicible. He's a coward, a liar, cheat, burglar, petty thief, con man, vendor of porn,taxi-driver pimp who tries to pass himself off as a journalist. On top of all that, he has BO.
    Arthur, the narrator, spends a lot of time defending his vile actions and trying unconvincingly to convince the reader that he's really just a "victim of soicumstance" as Curly Howard used to say.
    Perhaps the only thing that keeps one reading is (a) good writing and (b) the wan hope that maybe somewhere before the end, Arthur will do something the least bit unselfish.
    PS Please don't confuse the horror movie called "Topkapi". Any resemblance between the book and that film is Arthur Simpson. Anything else is coincidence.

  2. Explains to me why I never finished that one, Carl.