Monday, January 17, 2011

Likeable Characters

I'm having a bit of a dilemma with my novel.  I want my protagonist to be a likeable, sympathetic heroine.  But she does bad things.  In her case, she kills people.  She can't control it; she goes into trance-like states that she can't remember afterwards.  And she usually kills "bad" people, people who are either physically hurting her or someone else. 

Of my two beta readers, one of them likes the heroine and one of them does not.  When I've read bits and pieces of it in my writing workshop, I've received similarly mixed reactions--though, judging by the reactions I've received on excerpts I've read more recently, I've softened her edges enough to win over most of my classmates.

The beta reader who does like her says she understands that the character is remorseful for her actions, that she genuinely seems troubled by the things she's done.  The beta reader who doesn't says that she's not remorseful enough, that she doesn't do enough "good" things to balance it out, and that she doesn't believe that the protagonist is genuine in her interactions with other characters.  (Which is true, in part: this is a woman who has lived under various false identities for 10 years, so there's always a delicate balance of truth/lies in how she presents herself to people.)  She also has a problem, in general, with killing, her perspective being that killing is always immoral, so she inherently has more trouble sympathizing with a character who kills.

My male lead, I think, is even more problematic.  He does some pretty f***ed up things in the book, things that I can neither sympathize nor agree with.  Yet I still want him to be likeable, as well--mostly, anyway. 

So that brings us to three questions:

  1. What makes a sympathetic protagonist?
  2. Must a protagonist be sympathetic to be likeable?
  3. Can a character do things we disagree with and yet still be likeable?
I think I need to define my terminology here.  "Sympathetic," to me, means a character you can relate to/feel for.  Likeable, on the other hand, is someone you might want to hang out with outside of the book world.  They're closely interrelated, yet I think they don't always match up.  House, for example, is sympathetic yet often unlikeable.  Someone like Tony Soprano might be called likeable but extremely unsympathetic.  But those are constantly shifting boundaries, and it depends very much on personal preference.

Orson Welles, from the 1944 version of
Jane Eyre. My favorite Rochester.
 For me, I can root for characters who do bad things.  One of my favorite romantic leads is Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre.  He's controlling and domineering.  He's cold and condescending toward everyone but Jane.  He has a young ward who may or may not be his daughter, and he barely acknowledges her.  And when he falls in love with Jane, he proposes to her--despite the fact that he's already married.  Oh, and, he locks his mentally ill wife in an attic.  Lemmie say that again, just for effect: he locks his wife in an attic.  Then when Jane discovers his betrayal--on their wedding day, no less--Rochester tells her to just disregard the wife; they'll run away together and Jane will become his mistress.  Really, Rochester, WTF?

Yet every time I read the book, I root for his and Jane's happily ever after.  He loves her, and she loves him.  His wife was crazy, and he was coerced into that marriage.  But he didn't treat his wife--or Jane--very well.  I can't excuse it, but I can forgive it.

Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights...well, I won't talk about him much, because I just gave a friend (and one of my blog followers) the book as a Christmas/birthday present, and I'd hate to spoil it for her.  Even the much-lauded Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice--lest we forget that the slight that kept him and Elizabeth apart most of the book was that he said she wasn't hot enough for him!

One of my favorite contemporary fiction authors is Jeaniene Frost.  In her Night Huntress series, the heroine, Cat, hunts vampires, believing that they are evil.  Bones, the hero, is a vampire--and a bounty hunter.  When they meet, she tries to kill him, and he kidnaps her and chains her up in a cave, beating her up to try and get information out of her.  There's lots of blood and death in these books.  Yet I root for them, and their relationship, anyway.  Why?  Because I feel that, in spite of the things they've done, they're ultimately on the side of "good" overall.  They try to do what's right, and they don't always succeed.  And that's okay with me.

I tend to revel in ethical gray area.  One of the things I've been thinking about, as I write this story, is whether there is any such thing as good and evil.  Morality is a human construct, and what we deem "good" and "bad" has changed significantly over the years, as well as the way we punish illegal or immoral behavior.

So what causes a character to be likeable or unlikeable?  Likeability is a very personal thing.  I can tolerate characters who do a lot of bad things, especially if they do them for the right reasons.  Rochester keeps his wife in an attic, but only because he feels she's a danger to herself and others (mental hospitals being a lot less prevalent in the early 19th century).  He asks Jane to run away with him and become his mistress, but only because he loved her so much that he couldn't bear to lose her.

Darcy, meanwhile, almost lost me during my first reading of Pride and Prejudice with his crack about Elizabeth's appearance.  I hated him almost as much as Elizabeth did--probably more!  On the surface, his transgression is much more minor than Rochester's: making a snide remark about a woman he's barely looked at, when he had no knowledge that she could hear him.  He was cranky, and he disliked parties.  But his comments were mean and hurtful, and I had trouble looking past them.

I'm considering abandoning one book series I've been following partially because I'm having more and more trouble liking the main character.  She's very moral and upstanding, so that's not the problem.  But she loves to throw sarcastic barbs at people, comments that cross the line from funny to just plain mean.  She hurts people's feelings, and I don't like that.  Is she unsympathetic?  No.  But she's unlikeable, at least for me.

Murder most foul--no problem there.  Meanness, on the other're on my shit list.  I think my priorities are skewed.

The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby is a bootlegger with ties to organized crime.  Yet he only got involved with that life to win the affection of Daisy, the woman he had loved and lost to a richer man.  Meanwhile, shallow, superficial Daisy is really guilty of nothing more than toying with him a bit and choosing to stay with her husband.  (The accident at the end was, indeed, an accident, and Gatsby plays more of a role in covering her involvement up than Daisy does.)  Yet Gatsby is, to me, both likeable and sympathetic, the tragic hero of the story--and for my money, Daisy Buchanan is one the most unsympathetic, unlikeable characters in fiction.  Their transgressions are roughly equal; perhaps Gatsby's are even greater.  But Daisy, throughout the story, is insipid and selfish, toying with Gatsby because she doesn't want to leave the old money status her husband provides (this despite the fact that she knows he's cheating on her).  Gatsby only became involved with bootlegging and the mob because he wanted the money to win Daisy--a futile effort, since it wasn't the right kind of money.

When my 12th grade AP English class covered Crime and Punishment back in high school, I couldn't even finish the damn thing.  Although senioritis was partially to blame, I'm sure, part of it was that I despised the lead character, Raskolnikov.  Within the first 50 pages of the book, he kills a pawnbroker and another woman (her niece, as I recall) just to prove he can.  He thinks he's better and higher than other people, therefore he was entitled to do such things.  I was done with Raskolnikov right there, and I still haven't gone back.

On another note: funny how most of the characters I've talked about are men.  I wonder--and I'm probably opening Pandora's box by saying this--whether we're more willing to forgive transgressions when they're committed by male characters than female ones.  Back to the Night Huntress series: I remember Jeaniene Frost saying in an interview that the character that she most often hears criticized in the series is Justina, Cat's mother.  Justina believes that vampires are evil and encourages Cat to kill them--despite the fact that Cat is half vampire herself.  Poor Cat starts the series with a massive inferority complex because of this treatment, knowing that her mother thinks she's "half evil" and that she must constantly prove herself to her mother by hunting vamps.  Unlike Cat and Bones, Justina has never killed anyone.  She's a good, law-abiding person by most standards.  Are her acts really any worse than Bones's?

I, personally, like Justina.  There were extenuating circumstances fueling her belief that vampires are evil, and she softens and evolves throughout the series.  Plus, anyone with gumption enough to stand up to a vampire like Bones and basically tell him to go to hell--despite the fact that she's only human, and Bones could crush her like a bug--is pretty awesome in my book!

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