April 12, 2013

Pinkie Rae Parker: "Joie de Vivre" in Closet Capers

Please help me welcome fellow DSP author Pinkie Rae Parker. Her short story "Joie de Vivre" is featured in DSP's Closet Capers anthology, which will be released on April 22th. She's talking about the unlikeable protagonists (and to my delight refers to the show House MD--yes, I wrote fan fiction for that show and it made me happy to read about her view on the characters of House and Wilson).

Buy it here: e-book / paperback


Aspiring restaurateur Jules hopes to honor his aunt’s memory by placing one of her recipes on his menu. However, while visiting the farmhouse he inherited from her, he discovers her treasured recipe box has disappeared and encounters a host of needed repairs that make staying in the house impossible. When a childhood antagonist, Henri, reappears, can Jules take him up on his offer of help… and maybe more?

Writing the Unlikeable Protagonist

For most writers, the protagonist is the character for the audience to identify with, to rally behind, and to cheer on throughout the progression of the narrative. However, what happens when it is not clear if one should be supporting the actions of the main character? What if the author of the story intended for his or her audience to hold some amount of disdain for the protagonist? As a reader, my reaction to those types of characters has varied from story to story. As an author, willingly creating a character to be unlikeable poses its own set of problems. In the following, I will attempt to address these issues with character development and deconstruct several archetypes of unlikeable protagonists as well as briefly discussing the usage of these rapscallions in a romantic context.

To begin, I must define what I mean by “unlikeable.” For me, an unlikeable protagonist is one whose motivations and goals are instinctively off-putting. This does not, however, mean that the character does not have moments of humor or charm. Much like moments when we laugh when we probably should not, the U.P. (I’ll abbreviate the “unlikeable protagonist” for brevity’s sake) is not without his or her strong points. One can even relate to the U.P. as comfortable as it might be to admit, but the uneasiness of the relationship between the U.P. and the reader can be tenuous at best. How can the writer then meet this hurdle and create an engaging if unpleasant character?

The Secret Word is “Readability.”
At one time or another, most people imagine themselves as the protagonist in his/her own story. No one wants to be the villain, but we all have our own antagonists in our lives that cause us grief to varying degrees. The disgruntled coworker, the nosy neighbor, and the myriad of side characters in our own little fables that make our days just a bit less cheery. Imagine, for a moment, these mildly annoying or downright disagreeable folk as the leads in a story. For my purposes, let us take Thomas, a bitter university professor, as our U.P. Thomas is arrogant and easily angered. More than one young scholar has felt the sting of his acidic barbs. He belittles his colleagues, refuses to engage in university politics, and cannot appreciate criticism of his own work. Left in this state, having the narrative begin with such a character might not have too many readers going beyond the first few pages.

The key to progressing a narrative with an U.P. is readability. The audience does not need to relate to Thomas completely. In fact, the audience may relate to some of the poor souls upon whom Thomas takes out his frustrations, but there needs to be something there to give the reader incentive for continuing the story. The first is to always remember that Thomas is human. No matter how nasty he is to those around him, Thomas has wants and desires the same as anybody else. His feelings can be hurt, and there were likely events in his past that have made him the individual he is. Someone filled with jealousy and hate did not get that way by chance (even in the case of Sith lords); a triggering event or a lifetime of fateful decisions that did not work out for the character could explain Thomas’s aggressive behavior and all-around unlikeability. If the author chooses this route for Thomas’s character development, then he would be falling into one of several U.P. archetypes. Let us explore a few of them now:

Archetypes of Unlikeability

The first of these archetypes is the Stalwart Soldier. This does not necessarily apply to a literal soldier character. These characters do their jobs at all costs, and they do not do it by earning friends. They are truth-tellers who must complete their goals at all costs, even if it means hurting the feelings of others. Familiar examples of this type might be any of the incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. The television series House features a titular character that bordered on the unwatchable in certain instances. Dr. Gregory House, the show’s Sherlockian analogue, is presented as a brilliant doctor with a knack for diagnostics. He is a snarky, mean-spirited manipulator with an addiction to pain medication that potentially impairs his judgement. House also saves lives of those who have run out of options for medical treatment. This dichotomy of personality and deed fuels the show’s storylines, and the friction that arises as House’s bristling nature and his ability to cure his patients is engaging. The audience may relate better Dr. Wilson, the John Watson analogue, but they keep coming back for Dr. House.

If our prospective U.P., Thomas, fell into this category, the spitefulness he unleashes upon his students might come from a desire to see them succeed, to push them to the limit, and to strive for the best. His naturally abrasive personality, however, makes this ambition outwardly present itself as overly aggressive and belittling to those beneath him.

The second archetype is the Holder of the Tragic Backstory. This is a tremendously broad category that encapsulates any character whose flaws and unlikeableness can be traced to an event in his/her past that makes the audience have some sympathy for the protagonist, whether or not they agree with his/her actions. One example that comes to mind is that of Cersei Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. Though Cersei is a schemer and uses her authority as queen for selfish ends (often leading to the dire misfortune of others), the audience can sympathize and relate to her. She tragically lost her mother at a young age and was raised in a world that did not value her talents because she was not born male. It does not negate the suffering she inflicts upon others, but it adds a dimension to her character that keeps her from being a mustache-twirling stereotype.

If Professor Thomas fell into this category, the author might choose to craft something equally tragic. Young Thomas was a promising scholar with early admission to a prestigious university. However, when his father died, he was forced to remain close to home at a local community college because the family finances were in ruins. Thomas also was appointed caregiver to a younger sibling, who resented his authority. Though Thomas only wanted what was best for his sibling, the pair have grown apart due to Thomas’s overzealousness, and Thomas feels that his own potential was wasted even as he pursued his post-graduate degrees. These factors do not excuse Thomas’s behavior, but they might add some depth that will lead the reader to become invested in the story and to hope that Thomas might be able to attain some of his goals (if only he would stop acting like such a jerk).

The final archetype I will explore is the Redemptionista. The Redemptionista is simply a character with the potential for redemption. The character him/herself may not be actively pursuing redemption for whatever misdeeds he/she has committed, but there needs to be belief by the audience that a redemption arc is possible. Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is a bit too extreme of an example for the intent of this mini-essay as he does seemingly change all of his curmudgeonly ways overnight. One of the reasons that the Vicomte de Valmont is slightly better received than the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses is because there is the barest hint of humanity and character growth beneath his calculating and perverse schemes.

For our dear Professor Thomas, there are several angles that could be pursued with a redemption arc. One, if a particularly brave student confronts Thomas about his attitude, he might react poorly. Over the course of the narrative, however, Thomas then reflects upon his actions and realizes that he may need a new approach if he really does want his students to succeed. He addresses his own insecurities privately and tries to improve his rapport with his students, even though his attitude may only be slightly improved. Another possibility is that a new faculty member, unaware of Thomas’s personality issues, enters the university and is blindsided by Thomas’s abrasiveness. This new faculty member, David, is a pleasant and empathetic person. He wants to befriend Thomas and sets about trying to help Thomas achieve his goal of becoming tenured or finding a new teaching method for his students. This development leads to a very important point about unlikeable protagonists--

Unlikeable ≠ Unlovable

Whether or not Thomas intends to, he begins to fall in love with David, who goes from minor annoyance to prospective boyfriend as David continues his pursuit of Thomas’s friendship despite how hateful the nutty professor can be. For the U.P., love is oftentimes a contributing factor to a tragic backstory, but it can also be the beginning of a redemption arc. People in the U.P.’s life do love him/her, either romantically or platonically, and the U.P. is not devoid of feeling or emotion towards others.

Going back to the example of House, there are plenty of characters available to either love or loathe Dr. House. The acres of fanfiction scattered across the Internet featuring the potential for romantic involvement between House and his long-suffering friend and colleague, Dr. Wilson is a testament to what the power of love can do for an U.P. On occasion, when House realizes that his behavior has damaged his friendship with Wilson, House does attempt to correct it in some way because, as bitter as he is, he values what he has with Wilson as a friend. It is one more layer to the onion that is one’s protagonist, and one that could be of particular interest to one’s audience.

It is important to note that love, like remorse, does not negate the previous actions of the U.P., and it is highly unlikely that a person’s entire personality would change overnight just because he or she is involved in a romantic relationship. Also, for the sake of avoiding cliches, note that the love interest of the U.P. might be unlikeable as well. Rather than acting as a gentling influence, the love interest could antagonize the U.P. further into increasingly worse behavior. Of course, that would leave one with a story that more closely resembled a train wreck than a romance.

With all these things in mind, I encourage writers to explore the possibilities of unlikeable characters as protagonists. They offer a wealth of opportunities to delve deeper into the motivations of one’s main characters and how those character may develop over time through their own revelations, within their surroundings, and while engaging with others.

- Pinkie Rae Parker

Author Bio:
Pinkie Rae Parker is happy to use the moniker passed down from her great-grandmother. Born and raised in the southern United States, Pinkie Rae is currently a cultural historian and graphic designer. She enjoys researching fashion and design in Europe during the eighteenth century and studying French. However, writing fiction is a passion that she has had since she was a teenager, and she now hopes to pursue writing for publication (outside of academia) as a full-time career.
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  1. Great post! It really made me think about why flawed characters are still so appealing for me.

  2. Unlikable main characters are often the most interesting, because they often bring a great mystery to the table. Really enjoyed the post!