I’ve spoken about the antagonist in writing previously, but to those that write, striking the balance in making the protagonist’s personality both challenging and sympathetic is possibly the hardest to achieve.
I realised this when an editor said she found a particular female protagonist of mine ‘annoying’. This is probably one of the most frustrating and ambiguous pieces of feedback a writer can get. It left me with a quandary but also got me thinking – we know we have to provide a hook to the story in order to keep the reader’s attention, but what about our characters? Are we meant to sacrifice the development of a person by the trials they face, or does the readership of today need a quicker fix and a kickass protagonist who immediately explodes off the page? And are there different expectations of male versus female characters? It’s a tough one. I’ll start with women.
It will of course vary depending on the genre. We expect a gritty, action-packed intro from our female lead in Urban Fantasy. In more thought-provoking literary novels you are, it seems, able to develop your characters throughout, but you will need to hint at their potential from the start. Again, it’s hard to define. Are you allowed to have a lead who takes anti-depressants, or do you sacrifice realism in order to pander to a readership’s prejudices regarding mental health? Tricky. Who are those invisible people out there that comprise your readership anyway? Do female characters have to be glamorous like in the American series and novels, or do we now want more cerebrally challenging characters like Vera Stanhope in the books by Anne Cleeves? Listening to a radio interview with Cleeves, it seems she approached the character of Vera as a protest against the lettuce-guzzling, super-action females expected in so much crime literature and crime dramas. In the TV adaptations of her stories that aspect is treated with a definite tongue in cheek – the way Vera gives her male colleagues a hard time, turning up her nose at the healthy option sandwich her assistant buys for her, the whiskey in the kitchen. Personally, I’m a little jaded with the drink-problem trope, but it seems we have to avoid anyone who seems too bland and ‘nice’ and the addition of alcoholic addiction is believable and commonplace enough.
Yet there are pitfalls there too. In efforts to make interesting characters, you can fail to make any of the protagonists, female or male, in any way sustainable to the reader. We read to connect, and I’ve read many a review that complained about a book with no sympathetic characters that readers could root for.
‘The Magicians’ by Lev Grossman may be such a book. The teenaged protagonists are your typical seventeen year-olds, sulky, uncaring of anyone else’s feelings, self-serving and often destructive. They are the very worst candidates for having power, yet that is the point Grossman is making. Life unfortunately isn’t like the Harry Potter universe, with all those nice ethics and wish to do good. But reading too much of Grossman’s universe leaves me with a feeling like indigestion. Not all feel the same, so it’s a case of personal taste. The fact is, personal taste is all – but you can’t make everyone happy all the time.
Do some out there expect women to be ‘nicer’ in literature? In reality it has been argued for instance, with a number of famous examples, that courts will mete out tougher sentences in cases of child abuse to a mother than they would to a man. The press similarly will attack women for misdemeanours that would be more commonly expected if it was a man. So in literature, it’s easily acceptable for Ian Fleming to have James Bond coldly hopping in and out of bed with the nearest female, never batting an eyelid as they are cruelly murdered. Do we accept sociopathic behaviour from our female leads? Do some even recognise that behaviour as such from men as they would with women? I remember the shock displayed, particularly by men at the cold calculations of Amy Dunne in ‘Gone Girl’.
Remember the days when the male heroes in books were pleasant on the eye, leapt into danger to save the girl, traded punches honourably with the bad guys while their enemies cheated? Is it even human to be so flawless? I suppose it depends on what you read, the reality you’re exposed to. Young men in the First and Second World Wars were sold an image in books, films, posters and movies that portrayed handsome troubled heroes fighting the good fight against the evil ‘huns’ or Nazis with nobility and bravery. It inspired them to travel into terrible situations. They wanted to be those heroic good guys, whether or not the reality matched the hype that motivated them. Whether or not they themselves did.
So, it seems, we need those we read of to be inspiring, challenging, and perhaps to have a transformative effect on us as we travel with them on their journey, and then they live within us as we continue on ours. We need to make sure they are good company and the sort of companions we need. And if not, they at least have to take us on a journey worth the conflict we feel.