Writing Life #17: Hamlet Was a Douchebag

I’m back!

Sorry I was absent for so long. As I indicated previously, I recently took a long-overdue vacation. But right before I left, I got sick, so some blogging stuff went undone. And when I returned, my internet service decided to play hide-and-seek, and it’s only been about 24 hours since I’ve had a reliable connection. Hence the absence.

But now I’m back, to thrill or bore you with more tales of the Writing Life!

Every now and then, I think about character likability. Specifically, the likability of the protagonist. I have occasionally been dinged in reviews and comments for writing protagonists who are not “likable.” In fact, the very first blog review for my very first book savaged The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl because Fanboy was unlikable. Notably, this person did not say that the book was bad, just that he/she couldn’t enjoy it because he/she didn’t like Fanboy.

Now, tastes are different and I don’t harsh on anyone if they genuinely don’t enjoy a book. This isn’t about me settling a score. Many of my fellow YA authors have lamented the same phenomenon, so I’m not just talking about myself or my work.

I am, however, talking about being puzzled.

Puzzled because… Really? Does the likability of the protagonist matter so much? I mean, yeah, I get that all things being equal, we’d generally rather read about pleasant people. But I can’t think of any time in my life when I’ve read a book and thought, “Wow, that book sucked because I didn’t like the main character.”

“That book sucked because the main character was boring?” — Sure.

“That book sucked because the writing was terrible?” — Sure.

“That book sucked because the main character was inconsistent/unconvincing/ill-suited to the tale?” — Sure and sure and sure.

But what matters to me as a reader (and as a writer) is that the main character is well-written and interesting, not that he or she is “likable.” (I vote for Presidents the same way. We had eight years to see what happens when people vote for the likable guy.)

Likability, of course, is a spectrum disorder (for lack of a better term). Fanboy to some people is a whiny, obnoxious, self-absorbed brat. To others, he’s a put-upon, wounded, insecure and tormented victim.

Kyra is a tough, take-no-prisoners empowered girl to some. To others, she’s a stone-cold bitch with no redeeming qualities.

Kyle Camden (from my upcoming Archvillain) is arrogant and cruel. Or maybe he’s just too smart for his own good, in a world where people don’t often look beyond surfaces.

As you can see, I have no problem ascribing negative traits to my own characters. I acknowledge that they’re there, and while I obviously come down on the side of “these characters are worthwhile” (else why write about them?), I can see how some people would be turned off by them.

And yet, I still wonder: If you’re turned off by a character, does that really mean the story’s bad? Maybe the author just did a really good job writing about an unpleasant person. And maybe that’s an opportunity to read about and learn about a kind of person we usually don’t usually get insight into.

Not everyone had a gooey center. Not everyone has a heart of gold. There are people in the world who are angry and defensive and arrogant; sometimes they have good reasons for it. Sometimes they don’t. But they usually believe that they do, and sometimes we can learn from their pain, even if it’s only to learn, “I don’t want to be that way.”

Sure, Kyra’s a stone-cold bitch for most of Goth Girl Rising. By the end of the book, she has matured tremendously. If she’d started out mature…there wouldn’t be a story. There’d be no point to writing it. Characters have to evolve if fiction is going to mean anything.

I don’t care if a character is likable or not. I just want to be entertained and — maybe — educated by that character.

The notion that a protagonist is unlikable and, hence, unworthy isn’t a new one. It even prompted YA rock band Tiger Beat to pen and perform an original song with the continuing refrain, “Holden Caulfield is not an asshole.”

It’s a terrific song, with an infectious beat (and spoiler-laden lyrics), but I beg to differ: Holden was an asshole. Not always, but often. And you know what? That’s OK. Because even when Holden was an asshole, I was still captivated by him and his journey.

That’s what matters: Being captivated.

Hamlet was, as the title of this blog indicates, a douchebag. There’s no two ways about it. Critics have argued for centuries over Hamlet’s state of mind — is he insane or merely too crafty for his own good? — but I think that even a charitable reading of the play shows that regardless of his mental hygiene, he’s pretty much a dick. And yet people read and perform and watch that play all the time. Why? Because Hamlet is mesmerizing. He’s fascinating to watch, even when he’s being a dick to his friends, even when he’s screwing over Ophelia, even when he’s arranging for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whom he could have merely exiled).

Hamlet: Unlikable. How many people say that ruined the play for them?

Similarly, let’s talk about a hero of mine from childhood: Luke Skywalker.

Thanks to Luke Skywalker, I can peg almost exactly when I began to develop my notion that likability was not necessary in a protagonist. It dates to 1980, when I was eight years old, watching The Empire Strikes Back in the movie theater with my father.

There’s a moment where Luke is training with Yoda on Dagobah. He attempts to use the Force to levitate his downed X-Wing fighter from the muck of a Dagobah swamp, but fails, claiming the fighter is too large. When Yoda chides him for lack of faith, Luke snarls, “You want the impossible” and stomps off into the swamps to sulk.

I was enrapt by this scene, and then my father interrupted, murmuring as though to himself, “Luke has a lousy attitude.”

I was shocked! How on earth could my father say such a thing? Luke was the hero! And since he was the hero, that meant he was always right…right?

Moments later, Yoda levitated the X-Wing with minimal effort, to the amazement of Luke Skywalker and eight-year-old Barry Lyga, and I began to realize: Just because Luke was the hero, didn’t mean he was always right.

Furthermore, just because Luke was the hero didn’t mean he always had to be pleasant. He could have — in my dad’s words — a lousy attitude.

This realization led me to a new appreciation of the movies and the character. When I re-watched Star Wars, I saw Luke’s dangerously callow attitude early on. His whining about not being hang out with his friends. His fruitless daydreaming. Even his self-centered complaint in Return of the Jedi, as Shuttle Tydirium closes on the Death Star: “I shouldn’t have come; I’m endangering the mission.” Delivered in a plaintive, annoying tone by Mark Hamill, and immediately shut down by a snarl from Han Solo.

All of which made Luke’s eventual maturation — throwing away his lightsaber rather than raising it against  his father — more powerful.

But what I also realized was that Luke was still the hero. I didn’t like him quite as much as I once had, in the days when I’d thought him perfect and infallible, but I still enjoyed his story and his journey.

So, how about it, readers? Do you have to like a character in order to enjoy his or her story? Where is the line crossed for you? Best of all: Who’s your favorite character that the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to “get?”

Comments

  1. I don’t think that anyone can argue that Scarlett O’Hara is likeable, yet Gone With The Wind is still one of the most amazing books ever written. And nobody slogs through 1000+ pages unless the book is brilliant.

  2. I agree–Gone With The Wind: great book! Scarlett O’Hara: unlikable! I also liked the novel Wuthering Heights, but had much disdain for the adult Heathcliff and Catherine. Actually, kinda hard to find any redeemable characters there except their offspring.

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