Sunday, May 27, 2007

Writer Impossible: The Unlikeable Protagonist

In last Saturday's NY Times, Alessandra Stanley wrote an article The Modern Woman, Ambitious and Feeble, which points out the devolution of women’s roles in television comedy from competent-but-flaky into a hardened basket case. Similarly, the scuttlebutt being tossed at writers at conferences, on the web and in workshops without any further exploration is this: the main character has to be likable, even lovable.

Though quirky, compassionate , likable characters are an easier read and an easier sell, it might not be true to what you are writing. I've known writers to take off rough edges their protagonist, when in fact, the character was more resonant before.

Earlier this year, I was talking with novelist Frank Schaeffer. He said that the character needn't be likable, but it must be compelling. In other words, they need to be fully fleshed in thought.* And indeed, there's really only one character who you'd want to take out for lunch in his bestselling novel, Baby Jack. Likable is what mystery writer Marcia Talley would call a "moving target." It's too subjective.

An example of an unlikable main character that held an entire novel together was Rhoda in Joan Silber's Household Words. I didn't love this character --and neither did Ms. Silber, but Rhoda was portrayed so fully and her circumstances so well wrought, that eventually, I could empathize with her. Household Words won a National Book Award in 2005.

Rebecca, in the Anne Tyler novel, Back When We Were Grownups makes a lot of cold moves. She's a pragmatist, searching for what to truly care for, she's a handful of unrealized desires. At times she's detached from her own feelings, and most definitely, those around her. But her thoughts are so well expressed, the circumstances and settings so fully described, we follow her.

Hubert Selby, Jr. made his career creating psychotic characters, the type of people you'd watch from afar, then turn to flee. But again, his power to bring you into the machination of their thoughts was utterly hypnotic. You didn't want to read, but you also couldn't put it down. Pick up Waiting Period and read about a crazy man wanting to poison the masses, Requiem For A Dream for a glimpse of cross-generational addiction. Flawed characters, but utterly human and watchable. (Someday I'll tell you my hilarious HS Jr. story).

In non-fiction, Barbara LaSalle expresses outright desperation and outrage in Finding Ben. Perhaps hers is the most resonant voice of any book written by a caretaker of someone who has autism. La Salle doesn't want you to feel sorry for her, and while she was going through the hurdles, her circumstances were tough, her life was hard. Yet, I followed her quest to take care of her autistic son. (Having met her, I can attest she's a wonderful person).

What I've learned from all of these authors is that while the protagonist might not be likable, the writer has deftly given them a compelling inner life. Their inner thoughts resonate and their circumstances are well wrought in order to make them someone we can follow. Their characters don't make any false moves and the story told is meaningful and poignant. This craftsmanship is the writer caring very much about their unlikable protagonist.

*the feedback that was most helpful in my nine-month workshop with teacher Les Plesko was "more thoughts," and "make her less self-congratulatory." Similarly, Peter O'Toole once said that whenever he sees something getting too ornate, to go deeper, not broader."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Writer Impossible: Hammered By The Critique

Recently, I was googling a favorite author of mine, Joan Didion. Among the many articles I came across was one that had been written in 1987. It was posted because it was part of a university class curriculum. It was by a woman journalist, who loathed Didion and detailed the reasons why. She ripped her prose to shreds. She also got personal and ripped Didion too.

I looked up the woman. She died 20 years ago. This was the only piece of her writing I could find on the web. She must've done more. Yet, this venal example of her abilities is the only thing left. I just thought what a truly shitty thing to be remembered for. Something so out there, so mean, an outright rant.

In the same vein, last night I talked to an old writer friend. He's an editor of film, even teaches. For the past few years he's been taking writing classes and working on a novel. He's noticed that the feedback he's getting from peers is brutal in a way that made even him pause. In other words, it wasn't constructive. Is it the isolation of blogging, the chatter of forums, has this free for all passed into circles where trust is a necessary ingredient to helping someone become stronger, more perceptive? I knew what he meant, and frankly, I've often had the same worries.

Every writer has peers either in their critique group or in their writing programs who just can't resist putting forth vitriol at your expense. Or as an instructor once said, "Often, the worst offenders are expressing their feelings about the weaknesses in their own writing onto yours."

If I had an award to give to the world's worst amateur critics, it'd be to these two characters. One had the habit writing notes in the margin in very large CAPITAL LETTERS. I knew it was nothing personal, but it felt like shouting. He also used cheap shots, comparing characters to cartoons, bad movies ("WHY IS EVERY CHARACTER LIKE A BAD HOLLYWOOD MOVIE?"). He'd always lead in with every negative thing he could dredge up. Worse, when he got feedback on his own stuff, he'd play himself up as the victim, ("I'M SO GLAD YOU USED ME TO LEARN ON.") Feckless bore. The other was known to use arch sarcasm, indirect points, ultimately trying to make himself look smarter. Oh, here's a third: a very overweight, unhappy lawyer who'd look up over her reading glasses, shake her head, and do the "tsk, tsk" thing to the writer.

Mind you, critiques are supposed to point out weaknesses, inconsistencies, and stretches of unbelievability. If you're not responding to something as you think the author has intended, it's perfectly valid to say so. If something is dragging, you can write, "tighten," or "pick up the pace," or "you've said this before." If there's a character who isn't quite clear, you can write, "tell me more," or even "not clear." The point of this being, is that it is possible to be specific about what isn't working without being dismissive or sarcastic. It's also important to show them what is working, and if ever there's a place for capital letters in the margin, it's there! "THIS WORKS! DO MORE!"

Now, the surprising thing was this: they were the most passive individuals you'd ever meet. However, they had major streaks of passive aggression. And none of them had the writing chops to show someone how to push something forward and make it stronger.

Anyway, if any of the three have blogs, I'm sure they're absolute hell.

But mostly on themselves. Because unless there's ever a universal meltdown of servers, what they say or write will be there forever. It'll be a reflection on who they are, what they think of themselves, and how they treat others. So I guess in this age of unprecedented self expression made easy by the internet, it all comes down to this: what isn't said is as important as what is.