Here’s a post that I just stumbled across, though it’s from a couple years ago, by the well-known agent Donald Maass.
In manuscripts I meet many protagonists who are sour, snarky, bemused, self-pitying, singly-focused, disconnected or, frankly, just plain dull. This would seem to fit the framework which says that protagonists should be yearning, obsessed, suffering, isolated and in need of change.
It also means spending time with people who are a drag. Even more, these authors are promising their readers that their every new title will be a slog. The spirit of their fiction is negative. Many would say “redemptive”, since everything comes out great at the end, but the far off outcome isn’t the point. It’s the experience of reading that can either be burdensome or inspiring. It can engage readers’ hearts or turn them off.
The solution isn’t necessarily creating characters who are relentlessly chipper and nothing but fun, though that might be a relief. Yearning, need, struggle and change are essential to good story, yet all of that can be accomplished in a spirit that invites us in more than makes us run screaming. The difference lies in how you, the author, feel about your characters, the story world and everything in general, and how that finds expression on the page. You are what you eat. In the same way what you write is you.
I think this is an interesting and possibly useful restatement of the “likable character” argument. It gets at why that term, “likable,” doesn’t work for me — and I know doesn’t work for many other people as well. It’s interesting to me that Maass says it’s not necessary to create characters who are relentlessly chipper — as far as I’m concerned, relentlessly chipper is not implied in any way by “not a slog to be around.”
Think of . . . of course . . . Tremaine from Martha Wells’ Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. She is introspective, suffering, and isolated, but she is not a drag for the reader to be around because she is also witty, practical, competent, generous, and ruthless — a wonderful and unusual spectrum of characteristics that make her unique. Also, likable even though she is not chipper or stereotypically nice or whatever it is that critics mean when they use the word “likable.”
I think that this idea that the author’s general worldview infuses her work . . . yeah, that seems inevitable, doesn’t it? It’s true, I think. That’s why there are certain authors whose fiction I avoid because their every blog post seems like a scream of primal rage. I don’t want to spend time in an anger-soaked world, or with characters born from that world and that worldview.
Maass offers suggestions for, as he says, helping your magnanimous self shine on the page. It’s a longish list, but I will excerpt one little bit:
Who in the story can rise above a situation? Who can forgive when forgiveness isn’t earned? Who is high who can show humility? Who is low who can muster dignity? Who can open their home? Who can impose tough love? Who can sacrifice? Who can inspire? Who can admit wrong? Who can show love when damnation is deserved?
Okay, and one more:
Pick any page in your manuscript. What’s happening? Who in this scene can act more noble, strong, just, fine, generous, loyal, or principled?
As you might guess, I would be drawn to stories written by an author who asked these questions while writing; far more so than to fiction suffused in nihilism, despair, hopelessness, or so on. I get that some authors find that bleakness in the real world and pour it into their stories. I sort of understand that. I also know that some readers enjoy the resulting stories. That, I don’t understand at all.