Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

“No, I could never read this book again.”

The eighteen of us sat in a classroom no janitor’s touched in weeks, evidenced by the dust bunnies on my backpack, not-looking at whomever dared to speak. The first term of grad school, my first class analyzing story and craft. Overwhelmed, I poured through critiques others wrote only to be thumped for not sharing my own “untainted” thoughts. Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers was the first I tried to study free of the evil critic taint.

“Why?” 18828

“Because I don’t like Charlie. He’s an asshole.”

“So you don’t think a story can sell if you don’t like the main character.” Half the room nodded with the teacher, whose demeanor reminded me of a spectacled old grizzly bear.

I half-raised my hand. The teacher, a loud atheist who found my faith “quaint,” peered at the table-space before me to make sure I had no pile of articles painted by highlighter. “Jean?”

“Well,” I coughed, hated talking in that space, squirmed in the plastic chairs all universities think are somehow comfortable for hours of lecture, “A story can still be good just because you don’t like someone.”

My classmate turned to me, confident in her age and skill. “But I don’t care about him.”

“That doesn’t make the story less good.”

Yeah, I wasn’t much for eloquence back then. Not that my classmate was wrong, per say. Who wants to root for a jerk’s success? But there are other characters in the story beside the protagonist, so I think it depends on this question:

Will the story transform your character, or does your character transform the story?

The Rachel Papers fulfills the latter: Charles Highway makes his mark on Rachel and a number of other people, but remains an unchanged blighter from start to finish.

middlers-pride-7In my current work, Middler’s Pride, main character Gwen begins as a pompous ass. Oh, she’s nice enough with some characters back home, but once she meets the other Shield Maiden recruits in her training group, she declares herself superior, a legend who simply hasn’t been noticed yet. The latest scene I drafted amplifies the conflict between her and the other girls:

III.ii.

The river ran noiselessly, like a shadow. One could leap over it on horseback without trouble. If one could get a horse here. A hand barrow would do the trick, made with her wrecked tunic and some thick sticks and haul the weapons a few at a time. The ground, though… Despite the fresh sun, the land felt cold, sticky, and damp, like mud in the earliest of spring. Yet the trees were in full summer leaf, and the rabbits and family of deer who fed on the meager ferns and asters took no notice of Gwen. Good. A few snares should mean decent eating through the whole month. The mushrooms didn’t look all that bad, either. Tegan must be used to a much fatter landscape.

Near the Khaibe, maybe?

What did she know about the Khaibe, that the name would draw such hate into her face? Maybe she grew up near them, too. Had family.

Gwen pulled out the clay token Aberfa had made for her. It filled the palm of hand, its lines from the Bread Code they’d created as children. Friend. Always.

Girl chatter. The rabbit and deer scattered. UGH. They arrived as though bound together, like some sort of band, or, group, or…whatever. And what was Tegan doing with them, anyway? Some friend she was, chumming up with Elle and Wynne for no reason. Aberfa understood loyalty.

“This can’t be the River Gasirad,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Gwen. “It’s so puny.”

Wynne still heaved deep breaths, but managed to say, “It’s not. I live. By the proper. This connects. There.” She pointed south. “Not far. Rode. The barges a few. Times.”

A low ripple of cracks, low, swelled up, THUNK—Elle’s foot fell through the trunk, but the rest of her remained safe and sound thanks to Gwen’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

“Hold still, Elle,” Tegan brushed the dust and splinters. Paused. “Hey, Gwen, look at this.” Finally! Gwen untangled herself from Elle and knelt next to Tegan. Sure enough: “It’s like the plants from yesterday.”

Gwen took a deep breath, fixed her gaze so that she saw only Elle’s calf. “And the stag under the curse of the Cat Man.” Time the eyes, don’t move too fast. This must be a dramatic moment of the legend’s tale…

Elle thrust her fingers into it like an idiot. “Doesn’t feel much like a curse to me.” She held her fingers towards Wynne like she would know any better. “I mean, it’s a bit smelly. Sure this isn’t just old bat scat?”

Tegan took some and rubbed it between forefinger and thumb. “From what you said, Gwen, this stuff seems awfully watery. And more grey than black.”

“Remnants of old black magick, then?” She wasn’t going to be dumb enough to rub her skin in that stuff. Idiots. “Look, we have orders. We have to clean the weapons, which means carrying them here.”

“And ruin our clothes like you ruined yours?” Elle’s laugh sounded like a dog barking at the wind. “No thank you. We think it’ll be loads easier to carry water to the fort instead. Boil it up. Clean the weapons that way.”

Gwen bit the inside of her lip. “We?”

The three of them looked at each other like this “we” was perfectly normal. That of course they would work together. Gods forbid they not listen to orders. Again. Oh that’s right, they’re not.

“We were ordered—“

“And we’re going to do fulfill that order, Gwen.” Why was Tegan looking at her like some rabid animal? “We’ll clean the weapons, but carrying them here is foolish. We can’t afford to ruin what little we have to wear. You really want that black mold stuff on your armor?”

Gwen felt her feet step back. No. She couldn’t retreat. But she didn’t want her armor wrecked before it saw battle, either. “We’re here to train, build our strength. Become proper soldiers.” Well. She eyed Wynne. “Some of us, anyway. Gods know what you’re doing here.”

“Hey!” Elle stepped into Gwen’s eye-line and gave glare for glare. “We’ve all of us reason to be here, and become soldiers. Not all of us have been trained straight from the cradle, or whatever it is you did with your precious Shield Maiden Nanny.”

“Don’t you—“ Gwen formed a fist and swung.

Elle caught her fist. Held it.

Try the other fist? It won’t stop shaking…

Those damned red eyes are daring her to.

“You can help us here, or you can walk away.”

Her fist shook inside Elle’s. So. Humiliating. Her eyes burned like fire, all those legendary scars, too–

How dare she look a legend.

How dare they not…listen, and just…

“Fine,” she said with clenched teeth, and pulled back. Walked around.

“You dropped this.” Wynne’s hand shook as she held it out: Aberfa’s talisman.

Shaking hand.

They even take her weakness from her.

Gwen snatched the talisman away and marched back to the fort, black thoughts circling.

They’re not listening to orders because ol’ Captain Tree Trunk is incompetent.

Terrwyn’s too far off, blast it.

Well.

Captain Vala just needs to be informed of the situation. And once she sees how they disregard her orders, then, THEN there will be some proper teamwork under the true leader of this group.

The true legend.

Gwen’s the kind of girl I would have feared and hated in school. I would never want to hang around her, let alone be related to her.

Yet I created her. I WANT her to be this way right now. Why?

Because Gwen, like so many kids, gosh, like so many of us grownups, has to realize she isn’t the hot shit she thinks she is. Countless stories include that change: take my primary influences for Middler’s Pride, Michael Dellert and Diana Wynne Jones. drownedammet

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.inddThe protagonist Corentin in Dellert’s The Merchant’s Tale is a young guy who treats the others in his caravan like nobodies, but by the end he’s willing to respect them and listen to (most of) what they have to say about traveling through Droma. In Jones’ Drowned Ammet, Mitt sees the aristocracy as a bunch of gluttonous leeches while Hildrida looks on commoners as nasty imbeciles. Of course they’re stuck on a boat together, and treat each other like crap for a good long while. But unlike Charles Highway, these two cannot help but be influenced by events, and therefore change their perspectives.

the_dawn_treader_coverAs a reader, my first experience with this kind of character was that turd of a cousin Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the selfish idiot who refuses to take in the world around him until his selfishness puts him under a curse that only Aslan can break. Eustace finally must face that he cannot do it all. He cannot save himself.

That moment has stuck with me through the past couple of decades—not just because of my faith, but in a story, I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

Now to give it.

eustace-as-a-dragon-eustace-from-narnia-20929101-530-276

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46 thoughts on “Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

  1. It’s a fascinating question. Particularly the protagonist who remains unrepentently revolting throughout. It can be done – one of Joe Abercrombie’s protagonists in his successful First Law seriesis a torturer who enjoys inflicting pain, but he was my favourite character. He was horribly tortured himself and is shockingly hilarious as he discusses his own inhumanity and his plans for those poor souls sent to him for interrogation. So vulnerability and humour can certainly work to endear us to those less attractive characters and make a book a whole lot spikier and more interesting as a result.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Look at Hannibal Lector. He’s never repentant but when he says how he ate some orchestra conductor for murdering his fav symphony or wants to set about the revolting kid he’s stuck next to, cattle class on a long distance flight, you totally root for him. Well I do. Your question is difficult though. For me that protagonist has to appeal, otherwise it’s hard to want to read about them even if they do change the novel. Personally I love writing flawed people. I prefer to take risks that way because I love when people are not self aware. How many of us truly, truly are? I think you can bring humour into that. You can have a protagonist behaving in a way that the reader and other characters can see and think is pretty awful, but the protagonist doesn’t see it. I call it the ‘those without a mirror’ syndrome where a flawed protagonist thinks that other person would be greatly improved if they had one when in fact they’re the one who could do with the mirror.
    For me though writing that character, they have to make a journey and that is towards becoming something better and you can have a lot of fun kicking them along the path.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fantastic example. I have loved most of the stories filmed and written about Hannibal–all but HANNIBAL RISING. He is an unchanging character in a world constantly affected by him. The prequel…ugh. As the American comedian Patton Oswalt said (in re: to the Star Wars prequels): “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!”
      Bo just pointed out Hannibal is not always a protagonist, per say: in HANNIBAL he is a protagonist I root for, but he isn’t a jerk in the mean-spirited sense of the word, nor is he the most unlikeable character in the book. Hannibal is the avenging angel upon the true jerks in that story. 🙂
      Gosh, this debate is fun! I need more craft questions like this …

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Eustace is a great example! The journey is fun to go along on- and I love the book. The husband brought up the example of Seinfeld (not a book, but still, a story:) as an example of characters who aren’t likeable and don’t really transform, but somehow it works. My biggest beef is a protagonist that you know the author WANTS you to like, but they never really convince you that you should- especially when other characters are talking about how great this protagonist is and it just never…shows…up. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. He he he- man, I wish I was listening to it with you, friend. It is one of my favorite things. “I love you because you don’t kiiiiillll me! 🙂 Ah the romance!!! If that’s not a basis for liking a protagonist, what is?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great topic! I have actually been mulling it over for a few weeks as I look back at one of my old manuscripts. My readers said they didn’t like the main character. She wasn’t nice to the people around her and she was even judgmental of them and my response was: “so? Why do protagonists always have to be so righteous and good? Can’t an MC be… seriously screwed up?” I’m glad to see I’m not the only one and goodness knows I don’t have the answer for how to do it, but there definitely has to be some part of the story (perhaps redemption, perhaps the villain is the good guy, who knows) that makes the story worth reading. Thanks for posting this! Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you dug this! A friend and I have often discussed a certain Young Adult series involving sparkling undead folk, and the protagonists that, well, don’t do much of anything. She read somewhere that because the female protagonist is so bland, a reader can easily imprint herself on her in the story. How strange most writers like to create characters, and not imprints…
      Like I said on my post, I think people forget there’s two sides: there’s the protagonist who changes, but there’s also the protagonist who changes OTHERS. That kind of person ain’t always a sweetheart. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh quaint one, regarding this section:

    ” I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

    Now to give it.”

    BRILLIANT doesn’t begin to cover it.

    While reading your post I was reminded of the unlikable character Zachary Gray in Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Ring of Endless Light.” He was an ass, and inadvertently caused the death of a beloved father due to his selfishness.

    Zach exhibited signs of bipolar disorder, but bipolar was never discussed in YA novels back then when L’Engle wrote the book. He could be charming & exuberant & wildly risktaking one moment, and a total shit the next. In any case, he was a magnetic character and he added so much to the story! Moreover, he revealed growing awareness about his flaws and he knew he needed to change. In any case, if he was absent, the narrative would suffer, and while I didn’t like him, I liked reading about him – if that makes any sense. 👀

    💗 Love,
    Dyane “Rambling, Exhausted & Needs A Bathtub’s Worth of ☕️” Harwood

    Liked by 1 person

    • It totally makes sense, actually! (Hope you got your tub of coffee. I’m having a wee glass of red at the end of a crazy day in snow. 🙂 Shey mentioned Hannibal Lector, and Bo started bringing up various characters, too, and I realized that at some point it’ll be worth talking about the character that’s an ass vs. evil, or a character that acknowledges his assness vs. a character obvligious to his assitude. (Suffixes are neat!) Now it’s fascinating you mention bipolar disorder, too, because I wonder how much that’s really discussed in fiction these days. Gah, so much to learn! LEARN!
      Oy, these kids are yelling snippets of Charlie Brown Christmas from one room while the other keeps coming out to ask how party games are played.
      Here’s a raised glass and big hug to you and your lovelies!
      xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Eustace was probably the most memorable character for me out of all the Narnia children. Maybe it was because his story was so terrifying for me at the time (“what if I somehow turned into a dragon?” thought ten-year-old me) Looking forward to reading your novel as you definitely put a lot of thought and feelings into your character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, thanks! And I think that’s why Eustace stayed with me, too. He was such a jerk to the others, so as one who got treated like crap, I was happy to see he FINALLY got some comeuppance, and yet–yeah, no one deserves to be a dragon. he comes out of that experience changed. That’s the kind of experience I want my characters to go through (not necessarily being turned into dragons, but…oh, you get me. ) 🙂

      Like

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