On liking the protagonist

In my high school English class, we had to read Jane Eyre. I had read it a couple of times already by then, and loved it. My very bestest friend was in the class also. She hadn’t read it before, and she didn’t like it. You understand the consternation I felt.

When I asked her why, she said that she didn’t like the book because she didn’t like Jane. That gave me something to think on. She also didn’t like Crime and Punishment because she hated Raskolnikov. She did, however, love The Brothers Karamazov, so this wasn’t a dislike of Dostoevsky–she just didn’t like Raskolnikov, and it ruined the book for her.

This has come to my mind because my husband and I have been watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. We’re in the fifth season now, and–I hope I’m not spoiling anything here–by the fifth season, Walter White has become thoroughly despicable. My husband is having a hard time finishing the series because he hates Walter so much. And that makes me, as a writer, have thinky-thoughts.

I understand the appeal of a lovable, or at least likeable, protagonist. It makes a book easy to read and easy to love. There are so many good, even great, books with unlikeable protagonists, though, and let me tell you: for a writer, the villains are the ones who are easy and fun to write. The more low-down and ruthless a character is, the more interesting things that character is likely to do.

My own baddie is the character whom I can truly channel, when I write. My most prolific day of writing so far–over seven thousand words–was all him. All of my insecurities about the hero, the narrator, the situation and my own story came pouring out of his mouth. There’s never any doubt in my mind of exactly what he’d do, think, and say.

So it’s an unfortunate situation, for the writer. What the writer wants to write and what the reader wants to read don’t quite match up. I do want to add that personally, I don’t mind disliking a protagonist (I guess that’s why I like Charles Bukowski’s stuff so much.) I understand that many people don’t feel that way, though. Ah, me. It’s a problem.

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