There’s something that’s been bothering me for years. (I can carry a worry longer than anybody. I am the Olympic gold medalist in worry and guilt carrying.) So I thought I’d throw the question out here and we could talk about it. I don’t need anybody to tell me I was right or wrong, it’s a judgment call. I’m just trying to get some clarity on the issue.
I had a student who was a very good writer in one my (many) romance writing classes. She turned in the first scene for her novel and it was brilliant, fantastic scene setting, great characterization, vivid action and dialogue. And I loathed her protagonist, even though I should have liked her because she was sharp and strong and determined and active with a great goal: She wanted to get out of her one-horse town and go somewhere else for a good reason. So what was the problem? She was dealing prescription drugs.
The book opened with her putting pressure on a kind of sad sack guy to get her more pills to sell, and he was resisting, telling her his cop brother would kill him if he went back to doing that, that his brother had finally gotten him clean and straight, but she’s determined to get out of town and she’s really putting the screws to him when his brother walks in and confronts her. Okay, I’m actually good with all of that in literary fiction or in a noir where I’m not supposed to identify with her, and I should mention that this was years ago before the opioid crisis was getting the attention that it is now. And I really don’t trust my own instincts on this because I know too many people who have addictions to prescription medications and who are making their own lives and the lives of the people who love them absolute hell. So, huge bias here. But the final trigger for me was that this was a romance novel, and the heroine and the cop were going to end up together.
What I told her was that I didn’t think a drug-pushing heroine would work in a romance novel. I think I suggested she write it as literary fiction, but I don’t remember for sure. She said that it was just pills so it was no big deal. I tried to explain what “just pills” can do, but she was angry and she left the class. Which means I failed her utterly because it’s none of my damn business what my students write, only how they write it, and even that is up to them, I’m just there to point out weaknesses and teach theory and its application. I can’t get past the feeling that I screwed that one up. But I’m not sure I was wrong.
Here’s my theory about protagonists: They don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be fascinating and, I think, admirable in some way, I think readers have to want to spend time with them, get involved in their struggles. I think you can have a hooker as a protagonist, a conman, a thief, maybe even a murderer depending on who and why the character murdered, but I think you have to stack the deck so that person is not a predator. That is, your thief is Robin Hood, your murderer kills bad guys (hello, Dexter), your conman fleeces only people who deserve to lose their money. Leverage was pretty much built on the idea that bad people doing good things are fun to watch. I think once the protagonist begins to prey on people, hurt people, for his or her selfish ends, the story becomes unreadable, no matter how great the writing is.
But I also know that’s in the eye of the beholder. There are a lot of people who do not like Davy Dempsey because he’s a crook. I can understand that, that’s not their story. But it’s different when you’re a teacher because it doesn’t matter if it’s your kind of story or not, you do not mess with the story itself. Which is why, although I still feel that the pill-pushing protagonist was not going to work in a romance (opinion, not fact), I also still feel that I failed that student.
I’m not asking for people to tell me I was right (feel free to tell me I was wrong, though), I’m just trying to figure out what a too-unlikable protagonist is. And determined to never critique a protagonist again in the future. Argh.
What do you think?