Friday, July 29, 2005

The Unlikeable Protagonist, Revisited

Don Maass (a top literary agent, for those just joining us) has an interesting take on the unlikaeable protagonist (which he refers to as the "dark protagonist"). Maass, like many others apparently, can't stand to read a story with an unlikeable protagonist. He says that writers who produce tales with a dark protagonist are really not doing much more than performing self therapy -- the writer himself is usually the one who is actually struggling with a personal (and usually career-based) crisis. Maass says that inevitably at some point in the story he will put the book down because he just can't tolerate the protagonist's unrelenting misery.

I've heard this from other writers that I respect, and they usually end the discussion there. Maass carries the discussion one step further, however. He points to a number of very successful novels that do in fact have a dark protagonist. Why, then, do these books work when so many others fail? The answer lies in the fact that while in these stories the protagonist does have it bad, he's aware of that fact from the beginning -- and more importantly, he's trying to make it better. We all can sympathize with a person who is trying hard to make his life better, even if he isn't succeeding very well. This sympathy with the character, as I've noted before, is the single most important emotion we can engender in story telling. Most of the other plot issues -- conflict, suspense, tension, etc. -- depend on the reader first caring what happens to the protagonist. I think that there is a limit to our tolerance of reading about someone's miserable life, however. Yes, we want the protagonist to succeed, so we cheer him on. But if we start to believe he's never going to turn himself around, then at some point we quit the book in disgust.

So overall, maybe this is the problem with the story I wrote that features an unlikeable protagonist. His life isn't miserable, but the character does push everyone away, refusing to become close to anyone. It's his way of dealing with a personal tragedy (he inadvertently caused an accident that killed a large number of people). If Maass is to be believed, however, the reason the story doesn't work is because he's not trying to work his way through his problems. He's satisfied ("happy" wouldn't be the right word) with the way he is, and it is only external events that make him realize he's wrong. I could tell the story from the point of view of another character who is likeable, but he doesn't have as much at stake, so I'm not sure he can keep the interest in the main character going. It would be an interesting experiment to try, though!

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