So the antihero is firmly established in all corners of literature, film, and storytelling what-have-you. They’re the gruff, but lovable, people who cut corners and kicks asses but overall their karmic balance tilts towards the good. Eventually. The antihero is flawed, troubled, and screwed up a little bit. They’re a type, though, and have become a trope in their own right. Unless someone is mucking around with the trope, we know the antihero is ok even if they bust heads and break laws. They’re chaotic good to use the convenient DnD alignment chart.
I could rattle off all sorts of examples of the antihero in our genre in any medium. I’ve even got some examples on this here blog.
But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about.
Antiheroes can still be likeable. What do you do when you’re reading a book and you don’t like the characters?
A lot of times, it means you put the book down and pick up the next one. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a huge To Read Pile and a To Buy List a mile long. The physical books I have in my To Read Pile are actually as tall as my kid. That doesn’t count anything on my Nook. It’s easy to just cycle out to the next book.
How can the writer still hook people even if their readers can’t stand their characters? This has been on my mind a lot because the godpunk novel I’m writing right now has a screwed up protag that drinks away her problems.
I’ve had this happen a few times, and not really with books I expected. Chuck Wendig‘s Miriam Black, Diana Rowland‘s Angel Crawford and Lee Collins‘ Cara Oglesby all start out as deeply flawed, screwed up people. Some of them remain this way. (At least as far as I’ve read, out of date on all three series) I never disliked any of them though even though it’s almost expected a little bit when you’ve got characters that are so messed up.
The characters I didn’t like were Peter Brett‘s Jardir, Myke Cole‘s Harlequin and Delilah Dawson‘s Ahnastasia.
This blog post has been stewing in my head for a long time and I think I’ve finally twigged on to why I still consider all their books absolutely flipping fantastic anyways.
First and foremost, they’re all great writers. All the other parts of the books are expertly crafted. Worldbuilding, plot, supporting cast… all the set dressing is there to let the protags shine. Cole’s militarized magic has the plausibility to draw in readers. Dawson’s alternate world steampunk vampires are a fully realized mishmash of genres that are ripe for exploring. Brett’s got the sprawl, in both plot and worldbuilding, to support the massive tomes he writes. I’ve talked about all three authors around here frequently because these traits in their writing are the same kinds of traits I want to hone in my own. If anyone is looking for examples to act as torch bearers to level up their own work, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Set dressing is fantastic, but character is where things happen. I wrote about Jardir last year when I read The Desert Spear. I think he’s a serious asshole. Even though Brett’s sprawling series has a lot of POV characters, Jardir is set up against who I consider the primary POV. It’s easy for him to come off as a bit of a backstabber. And he does. And I never warmed up to him. Eventually though, I understood him, even if I still didn’t like him. I knew why Jardir had to stand opposite of Arlen. Now, I actually like Arlen but the course of the novel is better when the lines between protagonist and antagonist are blurred.
Cole does something very similar with Harlequin in his third book, Breach Zone. In the earlier books, he is at odds with the hero. Each of the first two of Cole’s books had different protags, so I wasn’t surprised that Breach Zone would. I did think it was an interesting choice to go with Harlequin though. Everyone is the hero of their own story, right? He always came off as a stuffed shirt kind of guy in the first two books. He’s not bad, not really. To me, Harlequin was the Bill Lumburg of the Shadow Ops universe. He was the middle management guy that got through the day by being a bit of a pain in the ass to the people around him. If Oscar Britton had a red stapler, Harlequin would have taken it.
Harlequin ended up being awesome by the end of Breach Zone. Cole leveled up his writing and that book is really a romance novel disguised as military fantasy. (Romance hiding in SF is a blog post for another day by the way) In one of the two threads in Breach Zone, we get to see how Harlequin became the super by the book guy. The state of his mind isn’t what I thought it would be in the past tense thread. When he was handed the tough situations, he found refuge in the rules. The rules aren’t his end all be all, they become his shield and he becomes much more human for it.
In Dawson’s Blud books, they are interconnected and set in the same world. There is overlap with characters and history but the books aren’t reliant on one another. In the second Blud book, Wicked as She Wants, Ahnastasia is a completely new character and the sole POV character. There is no luxury of her having a past. She comes out of the box (ha! literally!) as someone I really would not want to be involved with. This is aside from the fact that Ahnastasia is a bludwoman who would consider me breakfast. She is 100% a spoiled princess. True story. She’s a blud princess of Muscovy and all the pretentious snobbery that comes from said spoiled, sheltered life.
By the end of the book, I want to high five Ahna for the awesome things that she does. Dawson nails the slow burn of Ahna’s character arc. There’s never any prophetic moment when Ahna changed her outlook on life and the people around her. It hit me somewhere around the two-thirds mark that “Wow, she’s been kind of awesome for a while now.” I am sitting here trying to think of another book where the slow burn was written with such a deft touch but I seriously can’t think of one. Dawson had nothing else to prop up Ahna while she was being a jerk. There were no other POV characters and there were no other timeline threads. Ahna has one, single, linear character arc. As I’m sitting here thinking of the mechanics of that from the Writer / Analysis point of view rather than my Reader point of view, I am all the most impressed by it.
I think it is worth noting, that with all three of these authors, Brett, Cole and Dawson, I had read previous books of theirs. To a certain extent, they earned the benefit of the doubt. I liked their writing already so that “you have 50 pages to hook me” gets a bit of a fudge factor. Not that I wasn’t hooked by any of the books in question. They already built up reader trust before throwing down characters that I wouldn’t like.
So where do all these examples leave me and anyone else writing “problematic” protagonists?
Well, character arc is key. Ahna, Jardir and Harlequin were not the same people from the beginnings to the end. You can have great characters, but if they’re stagnant, that means the plot of whatever you just wrote didn’t really have any stakes or agency to it. Hook the reader and then let the plot change the character. With a problematic, troublesome, or just plain unlikeable character, there is a lot more riding on that change. The plot becomes more critical because each bump in the narrative needs to shift the character down that arc a little more forcefully. The supporting cast and their attitudes to the protagonists cast a sharper reflection on how that arc is progressing.
I think following that change in a character is a big pay off to the reader. You’ve gone through three hundred pages and bam! Results. Find the treasure? Get the man? Save the world? Yeah, cool and all, but we’ve all read that story a thousand times. How did the treasure change someone. What had to happen to get the man? Did saving the world come at the expense of someone’s soul?
That’s what readers really want, I think, deep down inside.
Now that this has topped 1400 words and I’ve spent a large chunk of my afternoon noodling about characters I didn’t like when I opened the book on page one, I’m hitting that point where I realize how picking apart what works with these books will help my own writing. I’m seeing more of the missteps I took with the now dead Amity I tried to shop around. More importantly, I’m seeing what direction I need to head in to find the right steps for the book I’m working on now.
When I was in film school, the old adage was a quote from one of my favorite directors, Sam Fuller, “You gotta have story!” Picture a 70 year old with big glasses chomping on a cigar with a raspy yell when you say that quote. Storytelling is storytelling, no matter the medium, I used to always think. And it’s true. In a novel, you need a plot, but the more I write, the more I’m seeing it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Where the story comes from matters a lot more in a novel where you can, quite literally, be inside someone’s head with all their thoughts, dreams and desires.
I hope that conclusion can help people level up their own work. I think it will help mine. But hey, this hasn’t all been 1700 words of thinking out loud. Go read those books I talked about. Even if you don’t need examples to help level up your work, screwed up, problematic, difficult and unlikeable characters make for good reading. Why?
Because they gotta have story.