During my writing down time (whenever I’m in school), I do a lot of reading. It isn’t as fulfilling as writing but it is a good a time as any to heed Stephen King’s advice. I had a great revelation over the past two days and I thought I’d share.
When you buy a book, you spend quite a bit of time with the lead character. I spend an average of five hours reading and the last thing I want to do is share those five hours with a protagonist whom I want to choke until (s)he. dies. Okay. Murderous intent might seem a bit extreme and maybe I exaggerated a bit. One thing is clear, though, a book is a chore to finish when the main character makes you want to chuck your Kindle clear across the room every ten lines. A Kindle is, regrettably, not a Nokia phone and is not made to withstand such abuse.
When I submitted the last novel I worked on for critique I got the criticism that the main character had some off putting qualities. At the time I figured that that was a good thing (and no this had nothing everything to do with my defensive prickles coming up instantly). I reasoned to myself that this surely meant that Becky was human and believable. I had might have had a point but what happens when those off putting qualities are so pronounced your reader wants to throw up in their mouths every step of the way? Characters are such a hodgepodge of inspiration from persons we might know, have read about or maybe even ourselves that we often don’t sit and think about how they come off in the end. I mean come on… most writers go through the ‘this is the best idea ever… Shakespeare would have been shaking in his boots if I were around in the 16th century’ period.. also known as the ‘everything before the editing period’ since once we get to editing we doubt that we have any talent whatsoever and the idea of becoming a writer seemed to have been made in an LSD fueled haze. When we go through the giddy high of fleshing out plots and creating (at least in our opinion) fully believable, life-like, lovable characters it might be a bit hard to miss if they are wholly unlikeable people. You would be forgiven for not wanting to spend time with (much less root for) someone who makes you want to poke their eyes out. So why should we force our readers to?
I’ve recently read two books that made me want to pull each tooth from my mouth with a rusty pliers and, honestly, that might have been less painful than actually finishing the books. I finished only because I have a very, very staunch rule to finish each book I started (which explains my completing Fifty Shades of Grey). It wasn’t that these books were badly written, unlike another book I might have mentioned recently 😉 but the protagonists made me want to punch them… over and over again. At one point I actually STOPPED rooting for a happy ending. Blood and mayhem in the last chapter would have satisfied me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that sometimes a writer does intend for us to completely hate the main character so that we can be more sympathetic with their plight as they grow throughout the book. First off I think that this is quite the delicate procedure and furthermore … if this character hasn’t grown one iota you’ve most likely failed.
If you are anything like me when you send out your WIP to your beta readers and they come back slating your darling protag, you automatically get defensive. But it might be wise to put your little sweetheart into a drawer for a while and try to look at her with an objective eye. You might be surprised to find that your little angel is actually a large bitch… and readers are hardly likely to be as accommodating as you are.