by Anne R. Allen
ou can learn all you want about writing powerful prose, well-planned story arcs, lyrical descriptions—or any other aspect of fiction—but if you don't have a protagonist your readers care about, none of the rest matters.
I don't think it's terribly relevant to talk about character "likability" in the sense of "niceness." The most memorable characters in fiction are not people most of us would choose as our friends.
Certainly the most enduring literary detectives are not sweet and cuddly. Hercule Poirot was comically vain, Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade were drunks, Lord Peter Wimsey was a dreadful snob, Jane Marple was a pushy, nosy old fussbudget, and Sherlock Holmes bordered on psychopathic.
You'd find even worse candidates for your BFF in classic literary fiction: Scarlett O'Hara, Becky Sharpe, Jay Gatsby, Heathcliff, and Emma Woodhouse were pretty awful human beings. Pip in Great Expectations
was selfish and ungrateful, and even Jo March could be embarrassingly strident for her era (and she wasn't very nice to Laurie.) And well, Mr. Darcy was proud and Elizabeth Bennet was prejudiced.
Would you trust any of the great epic heroes with your car keys? Not "wily" Odysseus (10 years, dude? It took you 10 years to get home to the wife?) Or Aeneas (who wasn't much better, taking 6 years to get as far as Carthage, where he was such a bad boyfriend to Dido, he caused centuries of war between Rome and Carthage.) And Beowulf? He'd get monster blood all over the upholstery.
I'll bet even Atticus Fitch wasn't much fun at a dinner party.
These are not exactly "likeable" folks.
But we LOVE to read about them.
Here's the thing: "heroic" and "admirable" aren't the same thing.
Memorable fictional characters are larger than life and severely flawed. In fact Aristotle said all heroes must have a "tragic flaw". The fictional hero needs to learn something or change during the process of the story, or there's no character arc.
This is why you want to avoid characters who are too much like yourself—or the idealized person you would like to think you are. Nice guys are boring on the page. And nobody can grow and change when they're already perfect.
Note: An exception to the "grow and change" thing is the comic hero, who needs to maintain his comic flaws. Lucy Ricardo seemed to have learned her lesson at the end of each episode of
I Love Lucy, but the next week, she'd be back getting into the same kind of trouble. And wouldn't we have been disappointed if she hadn't?
Unfortunately, when writers are starting out, we tend to write about ourselves and our own experiences. After all, we are always told to "write what you know."
But putting too much of yourself into your protagonist can result in a character the reader may find annoying or just plain boring.
The classic author stand-in character is called a "Mary Sue," but there are many contradictory theories about what constitutes a true "Sue/Stu", so I have invented my own names for some of the other types of author stand-ins who don't endear themselves to readers.
I call them Special Victims, Perfect Pats, Looky-Loos and Literal Larrys.
If you didn't come to writing via the path of fan fiction, you may not have heard of Mary Sue. I hadn't until a couple of years ago.
But all writers need to be aware of her...and know she is not your friend.
The term “Mary Sue” originally comes from a 1973 parody of Star Trek fanfic by Paula Smith, “A Trekkie’s Tale,”
in which the teen heroine, “the youngest lieutenant in the fleet,” shows up on the Enterprise and immediately wins the heart of Captain Kirk and takes over the helm of the starship to save the day.
If you've read a lot of newbie fiction (or you've been in many workshops and or critique groups) you probably know Mary Sue well, if not by name.
She's the author's fantasy self, living the author's fantasy life.
She kicks ass like Bruce Lee, solves every case, and saves every day. No problem is too tough for her to solve and no dragon too powerful for her to slay. And absolutely no hero is too hot or high up in the hierarchy to fall in love with her.
Mary Sue can be either gender—the male version is sometimes called "Gary Stu" or "Marty Stu".
A Gary Stu is the middle-aged guy who has hot, quirky young art students throwing themselves into his formerly unappreciated arms for no discernable reason.
Or he can be the young teen who has no knowledge of astrophysics, but somehow manages to figure out how to save the world from the asteroid when nobody else has a clue.
Garys and Marys are always adored by everybody.
Except readers, who absolutely loathe them.
As Laura Miller said in a 2010 article in Salon
: "What irks readers about Mary Sues is that telltale whiff of an ulterior motive." To them, Mary Sue is "a daydream the author is having about herself. It’s an imposition, being unwittingly enlisted in somebody else’s narcissistic fantasy life, like getting flashed in the park. And just about as much fun."
There's nothing wrong with fantasies. We all have them. But we need to be aware they make lousy fiction.
The Special Victim
Special victims endure unspeakable horrors in stoic silence. Nothing is ever their fault. Their stories are plotted so they can never act to save themselves. This means the reader is put through a litany of horrors before the victim is finally rescued or dies.
We run into this kind of protagonist when the story is a fictionalized memoir where the author wants to "set the story straight," or rewrite a story of victimization with a different ending to wreak fictional revenge on a creepy ex-spouse, parent, or boss.
Unfortunately, whether it's a "misery memoir" or "revenge fiction" the reader will not be engaged unless the writer works very hard to cast a clear, unbiased eye on the story.
That's because in a story that's all about "how I suffered," villains will be unbelievable and the hero will come across as a wimp.
There's nothing wrong with using anger as a motivation for a story. I think a lot of us are inspired by the idea that "writing well is the best revenge". (I even used that as a title of my first Camilla novel.)
The problem comes when we fail to detach enough to process our anger into fiction. Then what you're writing is therapy, not entertainment.
It's like trying to fertilize your garden with actual garbage without going through the composting process first.
A hero must behave like one and act. If your protagonist is so victimized he is incapable of acting, you may have to tell the story from the point of view of a more active character.
Perfect Pat is a paragon of serenity, goodness, and gratitude who might do a bit of gardening, take long walks on the beach, or travel to scenic spots. Pats of either gender may scuba dive, sail, kayak, or hike alone in pristine wilderness. We hear about every magnificent rock, bird, tree and vista and how each one makes Pat feel. Which is serene, good and grateful.
And a little smug.
In spite of annoyingly judgmental opinions, Pat is, like Mary Sue, adored by all.
Nothing much happens in these stories because Pat spends most of the time thinking. She also never makes the mistakes that could set off conflict. Pats are not wildly brave like Mary Sues (they are always prudent) and never make the kind of misstep that would allow them to be victimized.
Like misery/revenge fiction, Perfect Pat tales are often thinly disguised memoirs or travel diaries.
I once attended a critique group whose members referred to each author's protagonists as "you." As in "you shouldn't buy those shoes; you'll go into debt." And "you shouldn't believe that man's lies. It's obvious he's an abuser," or "you shouldn't plant dahlias at that time of year."
It was a bizarre experience, since I had read them a chapter of the Camilla book I was working on. Well-mannered, conservative fashionista Camilla Randall could not be farther from my own pushy, Croc-wearing, old-hippie self.
But when I look back, I realize that nearly everybody in that group was writing a Perfect Pat book. Which is why I tended to fall asleep at meetings. And they must have thought Camilla was who I imagined myself to be. *cringe*
If you want to avoid a snoozerific Perfect Pat, try giving your character at least three traits you loathe. Make her a member of the opposite political party who is chronically late and hums while she works. Give him a fondness for heavy metal 1980s hair rock, substance abuse issues, and a houseful of paintings of dogs playing poker.
Then let Pat make a bunch of lousy decisions: voilà! Plot happens!
The Looky-Loo protagonist stands on the outside of the story, observing, but never affecting the action. She may wax poetic or philosophical, drop charming bon mots
, or offer snarky, sarcastic commentary.
Readers are often drawn in by the engaging voice.
But they will eventually cool as they realize this character simply isn't the hero of the story. He's never going to do anything. And even though he's witness to one event after another, he never tries to help a victim or stand up to a bully or even save himself.
He never acts. He only reacts.
He is the same person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. He has no character arc because this isn't really his story.
Much of our real lives are spent looking on helplessly as awful events unfold, but one of the reasons we read fiction is to escape from that feeling of helplessness.
We read fiction because we want heroes. And resolution.
We want a character who will say, "here I am to save the day" not "darn, I guess the bad guy killed another puppy. Life sucks, doesn't it?"
It's easy to slip into "looky-loo" mode when you're writing a mystery. That's why it's best not to focus entirely on the whodunit puzzle and give your detective some compelling personal problems. (Although if it's a battle with the bottle, you'd better give it a fresh spin. That's been kind of done to death.)
There are, of course, precedents in literature where the narrator is not the main character. Nick Caraway is not the focal character in The Great Gatsby
and Nelly Dean isn't a big part of the story in Wuthering Heights
(although some argue she's really the villain) and Mr. Lockwood only steps in at the end. But If you use the bit-part narrator technique (a tough one for a newbie to pull off) make sure you're clear—to your reader, as well as yourself—about who the real hero is.
Sometimes we start telling a story from the wrong point of view. To fix the "looky-loo" problem, try rewriting a couple of chapters from the point of view of another character who is more active in the story.
Literal Larrys (or Lauries) are usually writing their own life stories, changing the names to protect themselves from imagined lawsuits, but they are not actually writing fiction.
Which means they are setting themselves up to fail.
That's because writing "what happened" and simply changing the names (and maybe making yourself a little hotter and smarter) is a recipe for an unreadable mess. Even memoirs have to be crafted into a story with an inciting incident, conflict and resolution. (For more on that, here's my post on how to write a publishable memoir
Literal Larrys feel compelled to tell each event exactly as it happened. No matter how pointless and boring or irrelevant to the story.
Real life is chaotic. It's an artist's job to make sense of it.
But Literal Larry refuses to do that. All his characters must have the same likes and dislikes and quirks of real people in his life. Even if those traits are contradictory and confusing.
In real life, human beings have many facets and often many different personalities, depending on who they are interacting with. In fact, all of us contain many characters.
But in art, a character needs to have only one personality (unless you're writing about somebody with dissociative identity disorder) because too many personalities will confuse your reader.
Literal Larry has also never heard of Chekhov's gun. He doesn’t realize that in art, if you put a gun on the table in act one, somebody has to shoot it by the end of the play.
He puts the gun on the table because that guy really had a gun on his table. Even if it has no meaning in the story.
This can result in muddled and pointless rambling. And an unreadable book. (And every editor's nightmare.)
A writer needs to learn to mold his own experience into a story with well-defined characters and a structured story arc.
Otherwise it's going to come out like one of those long stories drunks tell at parties that make you go hide in the bathroom or invent a pressing previous engagement rather than endure another moment of pointless blather.
The Solution is Empathy
I think almost all writers have written one or more of these characters. I have drawers full of early short stories with Mary Sue and Looky-Loo protagonists.
A few of my teachers clued me in, writing devastating comments like "this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy" or "why doesn't she DO anything?" in the margins of my fledgling fiction.
After that, was so afraid of being accused of writing about myself, I started writing about people as unlike me as possible. I even wrote about people I disliked. But I learned to like them. So much that their stories grew into novels.
Camilla in The Best Revenge
was based on a real "Debutante of the Year" who came across as a selfish nitwit in an obviously biased interview in the New York Times
. Congresswoman Cady Stanton in Food of Love
was based on a conservative African American preacher who annoyed me on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect". Her foster sister Regina was a composite of the impossibly perfect supermodels we love to hate.
I tried to get into their heads, and pretty soon, I found I liked them much better than my Mary Sues and Looky-Loos. And readers do too.
I'm not telling anybody not to write from experience. All writers put personal experience into their work. But we need to remember experience is simply raw clay we need to mold with our art.
Ruth Harris wrote a great post about how to transform real-life experience into good fiction
The problems come when you ONLY write your own experience. When you do that, you're not writing for publication: you're navel-gazing. As Nikki Giovanni said
, "If you wrote [only] from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."
Empathy. It's the key to writing a compelling protagonist. Get into the heads of people who are not you. Feel what they feel. See things as they see them. You probably don't know your own motivations for half the things you do, because you're too close to them. We all have unexamined beliefs that motivate us without our conscious consent. (More on this in a future post.)
But as an author, you need to know every motivation of every character you create.
Otherwise, you're not writing fiction. You're writing a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a therapy session, a lecture, a diary, or a police report.
And none of those offer much enjoyment to a reader.
If you need to put yourself in your fiction, be like Alfred Hitchcock. Be a walk-on character. I love to do that in my books. Only people who know me personally will recognize my "Hitchcock moment" but it lets me act out that "autobiographer" we all have in us.
For more on how to create great characters, check out MJ Bush's list of 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation.
(It has a quote from me and one from Ruth Harris; it's like a whole course in creative writing distilled into 99 sentences.)
What about you, Scriveners? Which one of these characters are you mostly likely to write? Have you ever felt you had to write something "the way it really happened"? What kind of protagonist turns you off the most?
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Food of Love: a Comedy about Friendship, Chocolate, and a Small Nuclear Bomb.
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Labels: Food of Love, how to fictionalize a memoir, How to write a bestselling novel, how to write a novel based on real life, Likable Protagonists, Mary Sues, Writing tips