Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rooting for the Bad Guy

I just can't connect with any of your characters.  I didn't find your protagonist "likable".  In the end, I really didn't care what happened to your protagonist.  There was no one in this story to root for.

Do you consider any of these things while reading a book or short story?  Do you?

I don't.

Perhaps I'm an anomaly, again, but I have no other criteria for reading fiction other than: is this a good story?  I don't ask myself whether or not it is a good story because that will make itself clear when I continue to read and enjoy the story.  I don't ask questions, I just read.  I like well developed characters, of course.  That's what makes a story breathe, and if a story can't breathe, people will lose interest.  Two dimensional characters can sink a potentially great story quicker than the Titanic.  But do those well developed characters have to be traditionally good and evil?  Does the "good" character--the protagonist--have to be likable?

I don't think so.

This is a subject I tread upon from time to time mainly because a good portion of my work deals with unlikable protagonists, and I have had my fair share of rejections stating that those very protagonists that one cannot feel sympathy for is just reason for passing on a story.  And it is--it's their publication after all, they can reject stories for what ever reason they want to.  The question of whether people would read stories based upon something bad happening to an unsympathetic and sometimes evil protagonist turned into the anthology Malicious Deviance, of which hasn't sold very well at all, unfortunately.  Maybe the poor sales is the answer to my question.  With a subtitle like: Stories About Bad People, perhaps potential customers are being led away for fear that they might enjoy a piece of fiction focusing on characters they don't "like".  I'm glad I did the anthology, and, of course, I would love to see it pick up steam, but... That waits to be seen.

The crux of this post, however, is more or less the question of whether the masses could ever divulge themselves in a plot that centered around a person they would scoot away from on a bus or cross the street to avoid if faced with in public?  Could the masses enjoy a tale that depicted the struggles of someone who is more than merely flawed, but down right criminal?  Or would that type of protagonist have to go through a complete transformation for the story to appeal to the general populace?

It's an interesting question.  If one has to be able to "feel" for the protagonist, or "care" about what happens to said protagonists, then I would have to assume that a book centering on a problem and solution in the case of a dastardly man or woman would be very popular within prisons, and, at best, would only be mildly popular in society amongst deviant low-lifes and politicians.  But what if the story is beautifully written from top to bottom, and the story, at its core, is one that the majority of people could really enjoy ... if only that damn protagonist wasn't so BAD!  Because I love the story, but I HATE that bastard of a main character.  How the hell did that slimy snake ever get the lead role in this amazing story in the first place? 

Because bad people have stories too.  It's as simple as that, yet I don't think that kind of story will receive the popular vote.  Although there are always anomalies, and I'm certain there are great examples of this type of tale receiving critical acclaim--I'm just therapeutically spouting off my thoughts here; I really couldn't be bothered with researching such tales, but I will have to do so at some point if for nothing else than to stifle my curiosity.

That being said, I think the idea of writing a story that sympathetically centers on the feelings, trials and tribulations of a child molester, rapist, or deviant of such heinous crimes is not acceptable.  But take heed to the wording of that statement.  I'm talking about sympathy here.  The closing story in Malicious Deviance is a real doozie--one that I almost rejected because the subject matter was so vile, yet after much consideration I realized that the author merely walked to the edge of the taboo pond and dipped a toe, gaining just enough nastiness to create a powerful and thought provoking story about the horrors of human power harnessed and used for evil.  There's not a good person in the bunch, but the story works very effectively.

I struggle with the subject of likable characters because so many of mine are heavily flawed.  Or maybe I just like writing through the perspective of the bad guy.  I'm not sure.  I do write a fair amount of traditional stories with likable characters (always flawed, though, because we're all a bit flawed, right?), and I cannot bring myself to consistently write like that, to consciously reject what my mind tells me to write just for the sake of what people generally like.  If my story is about a rotten SOB, so be it.