by Barb Ross, freezing her &*$# off in Maine
Recently, Ramona DeFelice Long wrote a blog post called How to Write a Protagonist of Interest. It’s a great post and I recommend it. And it got me thinking about the following:
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in a writing class or seminar and someone has wailed, “(Friends, my writers group, prospective agents, prospective publishers) say my protagonist is unlikeable. What to I do?” let’s just say I’d have a whole pile of nickels. Usually this lament comes from someone early in their writing career. Sometimes it’s because the author has committed to a protagonist who is relentlessly awful, but often, the writer likes the protagonist just fine, and doesn’t understand why others react negatively.
Sometimes the answer to this question degenerates into a discussion of whether protagonists have to be “likeable,” so lets get that out of the way. I don’t think protagonists have to be nice, good, moral or event decent. But they do have to be compelling and more than anything else we have to care what happens to them. Otherwise, why keep reading to find out? Let’s put it this way, when readers pick up your book, they’re committing to spend six to twenty hours in your world and with your protagonist. Would you volunteer to fly cross country sitting next to someone you found unredeemably irritating, self-centered, shallow, or deliberately stupid? How about a flight to Australia? Didn’t think so. Time is the most precious resource humans have. Don’t unknowingly make it difficult for them to give it to you.
So why might a writer be getting the feedback that their protagonist is unlikeable? I’ve been around the block a few times, and here are my observations.
1) The protagonist doesn’t react to what’s going on around them like a human being.
In my experience, there are several reasons for this.
a) In early drafts, writers can be so busy getting from point A to point B in the plot, events just wash over the protagonist. He never pauses long enough to feel his feelings, much less to tell the reader about them. As a result, the protagonist comes across as cold and robotic, even if that’s not what the author intended.
b) The writer knows too much. The writer knows the protagonist’s mom is going to survive that automobile crash just fine, so the writer glosses over what the protagonist, who doesn’t know that at all, is feeling in the moment.
c) Do I have to say it? The protagonist takes a date to a special meal at a fancy restaurant. The food is terrible, the service is slow and the portions are small. The writer thinks since they “showed” us this, they don’t have to “tell” us how the protagonist reacts to this situation. Anyone would be disappointed, angry, etc. But your protagonist is not “anyone.” He or she is a specific person with a specific background and how he reacts in this situation is going to tell your reader a lot about him. What if he doesn’t get angry at all? That’s interesting. You can “show” his reaction in dialogue, or “tell” us in his head, but you can’t fail to write it down.
Fortunately, the fix for these three situations is “easy.” Go back, read your manuscript and think about what your protagonist is feeling in the moment. Like the reader, your protagonist doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He only knows what’s happened up to now. Make sure he is reacting to what’s happened up to now like the very specific human being he is.
2) The writer uses their manuscript to air every grievance they’ve ever had.
You’re in the grocery store. The person ahead of you in the ten items or fewer line has 15 items. Now they’re paying by personal check! It shouldn’t be allowed! You’re going to make this point (and many others like it) in your book.
First of all, you are not the first person to have observed this situation, so unless your protagonist is buying diapers and formula having left her baby in the car with her boyfriend while they’re fleeing from the mob, I would maybe skip this observation. But if you must include it, make sure it’s balanced by your protagonist walking out of the grocery into a beautiful day–and enjoying it. Otherwise, she’ll come off like the old man endlessly yelling at the disrespectful kids to get off his lawn. Not someone you want to spend time with.
3) Your protagonist has compelling traits, but you’ve never shown them.
Your protagonist is outwardly prickly, difficult, down and out, but under it all, he adheres to a strict moral code, or she loves her mother, or he is loyal to his friends. You need to show us this early, in a dramatic way, when we can still get attached. Donald Maass says in the first five pages. We need to know, because we need to care.
4) If no one loves your protagonist, why should I?
Author Daniel Palmer got consistent feedback that Charlie Giles, protagonist of Delirious, his first suspense novel, was too rough around the edges to be likeable. A friend suggested he give Giles a dog. Daniel claims it’s the only change he made (though Monte is a very compelling dog). But it is pretty genius, no? If all of the above fail, give your protagonist something to love, and something that loves him, unconditionally. Maybe the rest of us will follow suit.
Readers, what do you think? What makes a protagonist likeable/unlikeable? What makes us care what happens to a character?