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.

Middler's PrideIn my serialized YA fantasy Middler’s Pride, main character Meredydd 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 Meredydd. 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 Beaumains, maybe?

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

Mer 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 Galene,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Mer. “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 Mer’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

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

Meredydd 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, Mer, 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.”

Mer 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, Mer.” 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?”

Meredydd 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 Mer’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—“ Mer 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.

Mer 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.

Mer’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 Meredydd, 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.

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Writer’s Music: David Arnold

markmurphyI admit, there’s a bit of danger using a franchise’s music. One can’t hear John Williams’ theme for Superman and NOT think of Superman, for instance. One can’t hear the James Bond theme and NOT think of gun barrels, bikinis, and baccarat. Also, car chases, volcano lairs, world domination, death rays, etc.

Yet here I am, sharing some James Bond chase music.

If you grew up on James Bond, as husband Bo and I have, then perhaps you too lament the absence of the James Bond theme in the Daniel Craig films. This isn’t to say David Arnold is a lousy composer–nooooo. No no. The man’s music for BBC’s Sherlock helped propel that series into the cosmos, and his skill with a fantasy epic couldn’t be clearer with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Arnold has, without a doubt, made a mark on the music of the Bond universe.

Take “Time to Get Out,” which comes from the opening minutes of Quantum of Solace, the first of twenty-some Bond films to pick up immediately where its preceding film (in this case, Casino Royale) left off: Bond capturing a bad guy. Quantum opens with Bond trying to escape other baddies with his capture in tow. Commence chase!

Yes, car chases are typical of the Bond films. No, you don’t have to have a car chase to utilize this music for your own story. All stories must have action of some sort, however, and for many genres, this action can be found in pursuit. Granted, this music is not for the low-key, suspenseful hunt; the brass and percussion demand a public, in-your-face rundown through the streets. The rhythms build, and build, and build until the final half minute, where the hunt ends in the protagonist’s favor. One knows because Arnold adds just a dash of Bond in the end. I doubt your characters would mind such a connection in their victory over the enemy. Mine sure don’t.

Click here for more on QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

Writer’s Music: Hans Zimmer II

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Showdowns are, I find, one of the most necessary elements of story, as well as one of the trickiest. Actions are a blur, emotions and motivations impossible to explain, don’t let it go too long or the pacing drags, don’t let it go too short or you’re better off not bothering at all, the setting’s impacted so you better talk about that, and what about the OTHER characters outside the showdown you can’t forget them and ARGH.

Oh, and it’s not like you can only have ONE showdown.

Music is a savior here, one which I’ll happily share over the next few “Writer’s Music” posts. Every showdown must be unique: there is no one quite like your protagonist in this moment, for he/she is either a) barely understanding the world right now, b) still learning his/her abilities, or c) ready, impassioned. These moments of growth influence the showdown, so the music should reflect that.

Your antagonist may be on a similar arc, or not. Some prefer the antagonist to be impossibly powerful so the final showdown and defeat is all the more satisfying, but I think it’s interesting to watch the antagonist grow, too. Any earlier interaction with the protagonist should affect the antagonist, and make him/her more intelligent, wary, etc.

Hans Zimmer’s “Air” is a favorite showdown track for me because, being a longer track, it does allow the characters to think and feel. To realize. Such moments are important, I think, when the protagonist doesn’t really get what’s going on; therefore, those breaths in the action help ground the reader, too.

I am also a sucker for ominous choirs, which Zimmer uses in abundance here. Strings carry the main weight of melody here, but when it’s time for the true tension to arise, percussion and choir overwhelm; you can feel the physical battle here. The eerie soft moments in the choir’s absence only add more to the tension—a moment of dialogue here, perhaps? Or perhaps a moment to run and hide? Give your characters “Air” and see what they do.

Click here for more on Hans Zimmer.

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#Writing #Music: Joe Hisaishi

41Q43379MPLOf course, there’s bound to be some level of horror in your story. Perhaps it’s internal, like the revelation of a dark past. Perhaps it’s external, like zombie go-go dancers. For kids, or at least for my daughter Blondie, one of the scariest things in the world is the hallway to all our bedrooms, particularly at night. Why? Darkness. A dark corridor that she knows very well leads to her bed, my bed, and so on, but the darkness and inability to see where she’s going always freaks her out.

So it goes in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. A family gets lost on the way to their new home and stops at the entrance of an old, mysterious building. The only entrance is a dark hallway. This unknown is further emphasized with Joe Hisaishi’s whimsical, beautiful score. Hisaishi tells the story of Spirited Away with music—I cannot help but think of classics such as Peter and the Wolf. The character themes are unique, major acts have their own tense then celebratory melodies, and the track for the film’s end is a lovely reprisal of the major themes.

The particular moment I have shared here comes from the beginning of the film, where the characters first encounter that dark corridor. The orchestra, with emphasis on piano, provides the delicate aural stimulation to imagine a single character entering an unfamiliar world. Now granted, the girl protagonist is with her parents, but as no one’s really listening to each other, she still gives the impression of being alone. And she’s going into a dark, dark hallway she does not know to see what’s on the other side. That takes guts, especially for a kid. I’ve found this music to be a perfect reminder that not every moment of tension has to be filled with deep dread, or a promise of horrifying circumstances. Sometimes the unknown is only a little scary, and that’s fine. When your character’s got to deal with a little bit of scary, use Hisaishi to keep you in check.

Click here for more on SPIRITED AWAY.

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