How Unsympathetic Can a Protagonist Be?

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? 


185 thoughts on “How Unsympathetic Can a Protagonist Be?

  1. Well, there’s Breaking Bad. But of course that’s not a romance. A point could be made that The Stars My Destination was a romance on some level, and Gully Fern was hard for a lot of folks to like. (I had no problem with him, but Alfred Bester was a genius, and TSMD was at least a decade ahead of its time)
    I’ve been thinking about something you said in the thread about food in fiction, and it’s answered something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Romance isn’t a genre, it’s a meta-genre, because it fits one of the needs in the hierarchy. So to say that something isn’t possible in a romance limits what genres can work in that meta-genre, and literary romance is theoretically possible, as literary fiction is a genre, not a meta-genre. (Does this mean there’s a “hard” romance category too, like Hard SF or Fantasy or detective? Hmmm…)
    Romance is story, and you tell us, as many fiction theorists do, that story is about character change. Anything without it is a vignette, and though they have their place (We edited one of mine like this on Monday while waiting for the fireworks at Kaboom Town) they’re not stories. So having a protagonist that is unlikable doesn’t mean the character will stay that way.
    That said, you do have a point — there has to be a hook to get a reader into a story, so if the protagonist is not enough to do it something else (the setting, the situation, supporting characters, or something else) has to take up the slack. Situational writers get away with this a lot, as the scenario they’re exploring is interesting enough to keep them going and if it’s got enough broad interest will also keep the reader turning pages or clicking forward. In the story your student was writing either the protagonist was going to have to change or the love interest would have to, as the two were incompatible as they stood, and how that goes down is where the story is anyway. (And BTW, redeeming the wayward soul with love is an interesting story arc, while the corrupting power of love is also popular, though I figure you could make a good case that it’s not a romance arc and I could agree with that premise while hoping that someone could make it work)
    A couple of unrelated points. First, the executive producer has stated that Leverage takes place within the Stargate Universe as depicted in the three series, and that Eliot was involved with Stargate Command in some capacity in the past. Thought you might find that interesting.
    I’ve forgotten what the other thing I was going to mention was now, but if I remember it I’ll toss it up here for consideration.

    1. So if the protagonist realized, as part of her arc, that she was preying on people, that would work?
      I do think the protagonist was supposed to feel that selling pills was no big deal, not like selling heroin or coke, just because the author felt that way. But it’s a good point that until you know where the character goes, you don’t know how the story is going to go.

      1. Something has to change, otherwise it’s not a story. It doesn’t mean the protagonist has to change to become the traditional romance heroine unless the goal is to do trad romance. But as a fast mental exercise, try this on for size. The protagonist is a drug dealer in a small town. Since it’s such a common problem these days in rural America, let’s say she sells meth. But instead of her changing and giving up on selling drugs to folks, how about the situation changes instead? Say something nasty has been introduced into the environment. (Something like the movie Impulse, staring Meg Tilly, for example) The true bad guys, in the guise of official types, are going to write off the town. The protagonist and the cop have chemistry, but until he finds out about this he can’t get there in establishing a relationship with her. But now she’s the only one with enough back-channel connections to folks to get them something to block this corrupting agent and keep them alive, and since it’s not something that interacts with meth she can add it to her supply and become one of the good guys instead of another profiteering zombie maker. So she doesn’t have to change her moral code, but the situation can change to make her less of a problem.
        There’s room for anti-heroes in romance. They don’t work in traditional romance stories, but the genre is so much bigger than that anyway. I ran this by the roommate, and she pointed out that she’s read non-traditional romance stories that worked well without the classic heroic protagonist, and we discussed that a lot of paranormal romance colors outside these lines. (Especially for me, as I can’t get past vampires as predators, so they’re not the least bit sexy or enticing for me, and that’s another reason to love what Jim Butcher writes)
        And here comes the musical analogy — duets aren’t about melody, they’re about harmony, and what makes them interesting are how the two voices work together, not what one or the other melody is doing. And since non-boring music is about the interplay of consonance and dissonance the not so perfect notes make the ones that resonate with each other far sweeter, just like how colors from the opposite side of the color wheel intensify each other.

        1. I like that plot, but it still doesn’t solve my personal problem: she’s a predator. She preying on the weaknesses of others to get what she wants. I could almost buy it if she’s trying to get an operation for her kid or something but even then, it’s that “What I want is more important than the health and safety of others.” I think you’re right, I don’t think that kind of character can change without a major epiphany, which means that even if she helps the cop bring down the bad guys, she’s still going to be a selfish predator.

          One of the things I tripped across reading about this was that Jake LaMotta was a real son-of-a-bitch, and that’s how he was portrayed in Raging Bull, but it wasn’t until he saw the movie that he realized what a horrible person he was. I think in order to prey on others, you have to have either a staggering lack of empathy or a sadistic heart.

          But again, that could easily be my bias. And you know, I can even cope with all of that if it’s not a romance, not something I’m supposed to emotionally invest in. I thought Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was great, and I wouldn’t have lunch with any of those people, but it was a farce, so I wasn’t emotionally connected. If the people on Leverage had been selling drugs or stealing from the poor (which is very often what selling drugs is), I’d have been out of there.

          All of this is personal preference, of course, not a suggestion that that should be a rule.

          1. I was thinking that the only way it would have possibly worked for me was if there was a LOT more at stake – like a sick/dying child or parent. Then I read your comment. I agree!

          2. Gin said that, too, and I’m wondering if the stakes aren’t key here. Not that you could forgive somebody who murdered a baby–there’s a limit–but that if somebody is trying to save a baby, robbing a bank is no big deal. Robbing a bank and shooting a teller is, but maybe the outer limit. Robbing a bank and killing a teller is too far? I think it comes down to the individual reader’s compass: “Here’s where I draw the line.” And since that’s so often based on moral codes mixed with experience, it’s not something you can really pin down.

            I keep going back to my personal reaction vs. what it should have been as a teacher standing outside the story (which is where I know I screwed up). It’s not like I’m a hard-nose anti-drug crusader; I was in college in the seventies. I bought drugs. Well, I bought pot and mescaline, I was never dumb enough to try coke or heroin. So given that, I’m wondering if the breaking point for me wasn’t that she was selling pills, but that she browbeating and blackmailing this guy into getting her more pills even though he was trying to go straight. Which takes me back to the predator thing again. So maybe it’s not that she’s dealing, it’s that she’s forcing this guy into a situation that’s going to hurt him.

  2. If your writing student thought being a dealer was okay because it was “just pills,” she was never going to make that HEA believable.

    How you handled the discussion is another subject. I have read Jennifer Crusie on writing long enough to believe that writer wasn’t set up to listen.

    1. This was several years ago before the opioid crisis got big enough that people paid attention. There were a lot of people addicted to pills who thought it was okay because they were prescribed, even if they hadn’t bought them with a prescription. I think it was basically a classist reaction–middle class white people took pills, poor inner-city people did heroin and coke–but it was pretty widespread. A celebrity who went to rehab for pills didn’t seem as awful as somebody who went for coke. Now, of course, the opioid problem is front-page news.

      1. if the heroine turned out to be an addict, which doesn’t seem unlikely given the “it’s just pills” thought, then she’d be more sympathetic. Especially if she eventually realizes she’s an addict. That’s how the awful heroine of Rachel’s Holiday can be a romance heroine.

    2. I get the cultural overlooking, but she’s still not a heroine. And I agree with Thea that, if the author didn’t think a major arc was needed (And she clearly didn’t) then it wasn’t there.

      Also, if you’re taking a class, you’re in it for advice and critique. You don’t have to listen or take it, but quitting because you got some or didn’t like it? The teacher didn’t fail you, you failed as a learner.

      1. This. If a writer was going to drop a class because she didn’t like hearing that her protagonist had a problem, she wasn’t ready to learn and probably didn’t belong in the class anyway. (Also, the not-fully-trained therapist in me thinks that someone so highly defensive about selling drugs probably has a bigger and different problem than not being able to accept criticism.)

        1. That was why I backed off on the “but she’s a horrible person” argument. I figured she might know somebody who was dealing. Or worse. And really, I was out of line anyway. People get to write what they want to write; I should be talking about structure not content.

          But this discussion has opened up a good craft point: If the character doesn’t think what she’s doing is wrong, and she doesn’t since she displays no guilt, even internally, then she’s not going to arc. I shouldn’t have said, “This protagonist is unsympathetic” since it’s fine to have an unsympathetic protagonist, and that’s none of my business anyway. I should have said, “How does this protagonist arc?” It was a dumb teaching move.

          1. Right — because if you don’t have an arc you don’t have a story — vignettes don’t have protagonists, because the term includes, at least by social convention, a person who is the driving force, either active or passive, in a story. Vignettes have actors, not protagonists and antagonists, as nothing resolves or changes.

          2. People get to write what they want, but you also have the right to draw lines where you are comfortable, and in a field where you’re the expert. Heaven knows plenty of writing instructors refuse to even consider genre writing in their class. So you were right, since otherwise you would have had to keep reading that horrible excuse of a romantic heroine.

            She was writing a noir with romantic overtones, not a romance. I have skipped around (reading one page in ~30 until the end) romances where the heroines were too dumb to live, too self-absorbed for me to deal, too mean to others in the story, or who wasn’t sufficiently involved with the hero (there’s one I keep rereading trying to figure out why it doesn’t work for me, but I think it’s because the hero is merely a foil and not a full character in that one). We readers have expectations when we shell out our money.

          3. I think the “how is she going to arc?” question is the key. I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with a character not thinking she is doing anything wrong in the first scene – but I would expect it to show up at some point before I lost my patience.
            I think I might have followed the character in this story before I would have followed a vapid one, or one that tries to sexually “one up” or out man the hero, but that’s my taste.
            Again though, I’d only ride along for a little bit. Then I’d need to see some movement or awareness setting in.

  3. I think you’re making the “before opioids” argument too weighty. I know the suburbs from way the back, and “just pills” was just destructive thinking and wrong. Still is, of course, with opioids. Think it’s a Cali v. Ohio difference?

    1. No, I meant that a lot of people in general didn’t think pills were that big a deal. The perception was that they were benighn Mother’s little helper. Sleeping in the arms of Prince Valium. That kind of thing. They weren’t hard drugs.

      But right now, we’re in a opioid crisis so everybody knows that pills are hard drugs. Dayton Ohio has so many deaths, they had to outsource the morgue. West Virginia is even worse. It’s a crisis now; back then it was a punch line because people didn’t understand the danger.

      1. Also of course the opiates are much stronger so now cops cleaning up an opiate site can accidentally get potentially lethal doses of powder on their skin.

  4. Oh, yes, the Davy Dempsey thing. I loathed him in Welcome to Temptation, mostly due to his and Phin’s distate for each other. How was I supposed to like someone a protagonist hated? Add the crook thing on top of that and I was pretty sure readers weren’t actually supposed to like him in any case. Unrepentant crook and mean to Phin; who needed him?

    Well, Tilda, of course. And boy I 180’d fast once Faking It came out. I loved him in that book, I mean, how could you not, and it made me read WTT with new eyes too. I started to notice how carefully he was set up; he really did save the horrible things for people who deserved them. And I thought maybe the readers weren’t ever supposed to dislike him after all.

    …I guess my point is that I’m a crappy reader? Or at least quick to write people off. I never bothered to read into Davy’s actions since I didn’t care about him once Phin didn’t like him. Sort of the same reason I only got a couple episodes into Deadwood; the guys with good intentions didn’t get any kind of early win, so my initial impression of them–and of the type of show it was going to be–is that they would be completely powerless. And after that, I just don’t care. Who wants to watch people struggle and continually fail? Bleh. (I am NEVER going to watch Breaking Bad.)

    So, yes, signing on with your thesis, likeable protagonists for me, please. In my case, that means people with good intentions who have the power to act on them… and also that those qualities are apparent to me early on so I don’t have to hunt for them (because I won’t bother). And if that makes me shallow and lazy, then I guess I’ll just have to live with shallow and lazy. I do love Davy now, though, so I’m at least somewhat redeemable…!

    1. WAIT. Is this why I had a hard time bonding with Phin?! Cause I read Faking It first and LOVE Davy. And then there’s this mean asshole who’s practically apathetic about his life who keeps tricking Davy’s sister into bed.

      Yeah, I did have a hard time connecting to Welcome to Temptation, why do you ask?

      1. LOL. You are not alone. I used to get letters complaining that Phin was abusive. Good thing I’ve written a lot of novels.

        1. Phin was the first fictional man I ever read about who was fine without reciprocation after oral sex.

          He’s the greatest.

          1. “The phallic variation” is one of my favourite lines ever.

            And he’s a great Dad. I didn’t like Phin early on the first time I read WTT, but he grew on me because of that.

      2. Yeah, I have issues with Phin too. I think I started with an irrational dislike of his name and then just moved into disliking the character.

        I also have issues with the heroine in one of SEP’s books as just being a miserable person.

        1. Ain’t She Sweet–right? I was reading along in that one, thinking “I’m not sure I can hang with this chick” right up until what’s-his-name sticks his tongue down her throat and she just stands there and takes it because she has it coming. Her strong sense of justice won me over instantly and now it’s my favorite SEP (Except for that secret baby trope at the end. I hate the secret baby trope.)

      3. oh thank you – I also read Faking It first, and I trusted Davy’s instincts more than Sophie’s (rookie mistake, ok?) and disliked Phin until he stood up to his mother.

    2. Davey all the way. I actually don’t have a problem with liking two characters who don’t like each other. Especially when they grow into liking (or respecting) each other. Partly because it’s a realistic dynamic for me. I know plenty of people who are awesome, and who get along great with me, but who rub each other the wrong way. But I also think I see it is as the friendship version of the “oh hell, not you” trope. I love that trope in romance, obviously, but I also think it can apply to other relationships. “Oh hell, why’d my sister pick you, now we’re family, and I’d do anything for family…”

      Thinking about Davey again, I attached early because the first thing you see is how much he loves his sisters. I think if you introduce me to someone who’s going to have unlikeable characteristics, first give me the thing they love with all their hearts that makes them vulnerable. If I see them with that first, it weights the scale against all future faults. Not indefinitely. But it helps.

      In general I think the rule about satire – Satire punches up, not down – applies to heroes/ heroines. They have to punch up, not down, to get what they want.

      If they’re not heroic – if they don’t stick up for what they believe and who they love and who needs help, on whatever scale the story takes place on – they can punch down. But then they’re not heroes, they’re just protagonists. And I think some genres (like romance, cozy mysteries, some types of fantasy) demand heroes, even if it’s the every day type of hero.

      1. I never thought about the oh-hell-not-you trope applying to other relationships, but that’s true; it’s what happens with Max in the Nita book. And it’s really what happens will all five in the Leverage series. (I’ve got Leverage on my brain for some reason.)
        There’s a TV trope called Pat the Dog (pet the dog?) which I tripped over reading about unlikable characters in which generally unlikable characters do something kind or something that makes them vulnerable and you like them better for it, like Spike liking and protecting Joyce in Buffy. I didn’t have that in mind when I wrote Davy, but I think that’s that trope.

        That bit about punching down is important here, I think. No preying on people with less power than you have?

        1. Yeah. There was a blow up on YouTube because someone made a video their viewers thought was offensive. And when the person defended it as satire, people said it’s not satire if it’s making fun of (or appears to make fun of) the people with less power in a given dynamic. For satire I think they’re normally going after the big things – societal structures, celebrities, cultures, etc. I think romance normally happens on a more personal scale. So the punching up/ down could be a little more nuanced. I’m thinking of Courtney Milan’s Heiress Effect, where the hero is asked to socially ruin the heroine in exchange for a vote in Parliament that will give the vote to men without land. You don’t like that he’s considering hurting the heroine, but it’s framed in a way where he thinks hurting one rich woman will help thousands of poor men for years to come. So I’m open to morally ambiguous. But if the writer can’t see the victims I see, then I assume I’m not going to like that book’s world view. And a lot of what I read romance for is the world view – happy endings and good families and great sex are all possible, and you deserve them.

          1. It’s also crucial in The Heiress Effect that the hero considering ruining the heroine is a moral dilemma that adds to his character arc and the story’s tension; it’d be an entirely different beast if the opening scene had him already ruining a woman for a Good Cause. (Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal is another good example: the hero is a forger and rogue who certainly didn’t have any good causes beyond survival, but the first scene has him coming home to help an old friend, and agreeing with the heroine that women should be allowed to vote, despite his cynicism about it ever happening. This primes us to like him even as we learn more about his past throughout the book, both what he’s done and what was done to him.)

    3. For me, the antagonism was all on the page. Yeah, Davy’s working the con, but they’re all dealing with the fallout from their father, who was clearly detestable. But Davy’s so obviously on Sophie’s side there was no way I could dislike him. And Phin is complicated but clearly drawn to her and protective of her, so I don’t get the abusive thing at all. I do love the line about him throwing a lamp to not be alone with her – the fact that they both call each other on their bullshit is one of my favorite things about the book. It’s damned crafty, Ms. Cruise, in the best way.

    4. I think I read Welcome to Temptation first, and I loved Davy. Still like him better than Phin in fact, although I’ve never had a problem with Phin. It was annoying of him to meddle in Sophie’s relationship because that wasn’t his business, but he did it because he was worried about her, and it was something easily fixed. He was a great brother. The thing that really made me a fan of Davy in that book was the end, though. He was the one who made sure Clea faced consequences for what she did; I respect that.

  5. This is an interesting topic.

    I think, for me, one of the defining characteristics of genre romance is that readers want /expect to connect emotionally to the story – to believe in the emotions between the protagonists, to feel a strong emotional connection to the protagonists. Some readers want to live vicariously through the heroine or find their next book boyfriend. I don’t read romance in that way, but I do need to feel some type of emotional connection to the characters and the story.

    This is a long way of saying I think I agree that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable but they do have to be fascinating- there has to be something that draws me in.

  6. So I think you’re right that the protagonist had better be fascinating if they are not going to be likeable. It’s easier if the protagonist is likeable. I can only think of a very few protagonists that I actively disliked–usually the protagonists who are not self-aware (they talk about how generous they are when they are being incredibly selfish, or act terribly but justify it by saying that there’s no other choice, though of course there is). The most recent one I encountered, actually, was in The Chocolate Thief, which I found from the food blog post. I had to take breaks and rant about her, but I finished the book because I wanted to see how she managed to get the guy. So I guess if the protagonist is going to be unlikeable to someone, then there had better be some other hook–great writing, great plot, something.

    I would also say that trying to point out to your student that she might be a bit tone deaf is ok. But, likely should have waited to see how the story turned out before conclusively telling her that it absolutely won’t work. Nicole above is probably right–that protagonist was going to have to change.

    All that being said, there definitely is a line, to answer your original question of how unsympathetic. If they really are too unlikeable, the rest doesn’t matter, the reader is going to put down the book and walk away. I guess you can dislike them, be annoyed at them, but if you start to actively hate them, there’s the line.

    1. Yes, Cade. If it weren’t for her beloved grandfather as the reason for the thieving I’d have not finished the book, but Cade’s reasons for trying to get what she needed first legitimately and then trying to steal it made sense in the context of the story. She’s certainly one of the few born-rich characters I’ve liked.

      1. Huh. I didn’t even credit it to the grandfather. Once the book was said and done the only way I could make it make sense in my head was that she was so out of touch with her own wants/emotions, she was behaving super erratic and irrational and then trying to justify it to herself. She HAD to break in? Really? All that money and there was NO other way to learn how to make fine chocolates? Found it really hard to believe that.

        She grew on me later, once she had gotten her life back on track and was being honest with herself.

        1. Panic makes people do stupid things. So does arrogance.

          And yes, I liked her more as the story moved past that.

  7. I think we forgive a bit more with movies than we do with books.

    Part of the magic of books is that the reader is creating the world as she reads. If we are not willing to create a flawed character in our minds, then the book will fail.

    Watching a film, which requires less to little building of the world or character from us, does not impact us the same way.

    We’ve been willing to forgive cat burglars and art thieves in romance novels because the crime is often pitched within a morally acceptable outcome. There’s an artifact that would prove a theory or the burglary victim’s crime. The protagonist would be redeemed when it all came to light. This makes a little bit of second storey work ok to a reader!

    A character in early books in a series that is villainous is redeemed by the “love of a good woman” – Ashwin by Kit Rocha or White Star by Elizabeth Vaughn. Again we need to see some humanity.

    Jenny, if the student was firm enough that she needed to leave, then she continued to write it as she saw fit. I follow enough romance publishing online to think that it never got published as a romance novel.

    Back in 2010 I started but never finished reading Trust Me On This. It seemed to me that the hero would keep lying and the heroine would keep being mistaken for being villainous until it unravelled at the end. I got to chapter 2 where Dennie is threatened by the hotel manager and I just couldn’t finish. Yesterday I was captive at the car dealer while waiting for a shuttle and admin for car service and so I took the book, determined to power through. I got to Dennie and Alec’s dinner and didn’t want to stop. The big misunderstanding was quickly whittled into smaller, manageable misunderstandings that the characters instincts and intelligence made them disbelieve. Soon they knew more about each other as people and less as their roles.

    If there is something to identify with, we can read the harder character in a book. If there is nothing that can put me close to the character, then it is unlikely that I’d want to read the book.

    1. I think we tend to stick with movies longer than we do books, too, especially if we’ve paid to go see it. It’s easy to put a book down, harder to get up and walk out of a theater or even stop watching at home, in part because of what you’ve said: we’re not participating, we’re viewing.

      Glad TMOT did it for you this time (g).

  8. I really liked Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic. A lot of people hated her, though, too. So many things are a matter of values and taste and . . . just something we can’t put our finger upon.

    Being a pill seller, in strict terms, might not be any worse than being a hardnosed business person who buys up bookstores, for example, and turns them into massage parlors. But, someone who used to work for a massage parlor, or a used bookstore that got bought up, may have no interest whatsoever in reading this particular story.

    In a first draft, a person may not have enough room to show what’s so great about their character (they may not know, themselves). Are we really supposed to know by the second draft, and be able to show on paper that, “Yes, this person is a rake, but a reformed one”? Maybe we are. (sigh. not doing that yet, so I’m a little depressed.)

    There are several romances with heroes that are just jerks. Lord of Scoundrels comes to mind. To tell the truth, I never really came to like him, but the heroine was great, her support group (grandmother) was great, and the storytelling and events were great. I like that book very much, and I’m sure there’s more than one book I’ve read where the hero seems unheroic (unlikable) at the beginning.

    Cotillion (is that the one with Freddie?) is one where the hero seems likable, but he’s not the reason you keep reading the story by any means. He’s wishy-washy and drab, and a bit of a shrill voice in the beginning. Don’t judge a book by the cover, though. He turns out to be the hero in the best possible ways (as far as I’m concerned).

    I have to admit, though, I’m not really a genre sort of reader. I love a really good story well-told. I can’t explain what I mean by that — I just know it when I read it. In theory, a story can hit all the “right” spots, but still feel drab. But on the other hand, a story can be a bit of a wild mess, and be a wonderful read that I’ll remember fondly.

    1. This is interesting. I don’t think somebody who buys a bookstore and turns it into a massage parlor is worse than a drug dealer.
      There are plenty of other bookstores, and people who patronize a massage parlor aren’t victims and are not endangering their lives if they spend their money there.

      I really think it goes back to predatory for me, especially preying on people who can’t fight back. I think I could roll with somebody who steals from the rich, but I’d draw the line at somebody who took from the poor, not because I have a Robin Hood complex but because one is powerful and one is not, one will get police attention and one probably will not, one at least shows a kind of moral code and one does not. It’s not that they break the law, it’s that they hurt people.

      1. I’m still working through this and don’t have any firm position. But in some communities (and I haven’t been back to the States for a very long time, so I don’t know how many communities and what the overlap between said communities and romance readers), the pill dealer is Mr. or Ms. Party. (I’m relying on my one encounter with drugs when I was about 14.) They are considered no worse than the guy who buys teens liquor (that is to say, for those people, it’s just not a big deal). S/He is just a business person with a product, and needs to be hardnosed about it.

        Still working it out: would it make it better if Our Heroine was a bootlegger in the 1920s? We’d be working with 1) distance of time, and 2) the fact that the drug in question is legal in our own age. When I stop to think about it, I think both heroines probably have to be distinct rats with weapons in order to make things work out. They are both dealing with soul-destroying substances that people really like.

        I’ve been thinking about this whole set-up a lot over the last day. Do we give a pass to males who are obnoxious? I’m thinking in particular about Sherlock Holmes, who has had such a rebirth (at least three series/movies in the last decade, I think) recently. He’s a drug addict with not a lot of friendly qualities. And I sure as heck am not reading the books for Watson (although the more modern versions I’ve seen make Watson much more likable and less cardboard-y).

        Is it worse if a girl is the obnoxious one? What about Scarlett O’Hara? Leaving aside for just a second the whole “glorifying of systemized slavery” thing (and I know that’s a huge thing), Scarlett was a favorite character of mine when I was in my teens. She just went out and did things, and dealt with the consequences. Stealing boyfriends was her main goal — everything else was just keeping score and furthering her sexual agenda. There’s a lot of nonsense about her love for Tara, but I think she just needed a solid base for her Love Hunt. As a reader, I recognized that she was a very Bad Person, but I couldn’t help cheering for her as she stuck it to The Man. As a kid, I didn’t have a very firm grasp of the balance betweens “the means” and “the ends”.

        I think as a reader, I’m very attracted to characters who ooze confidence. They can be really horrible characters, and I can still like them. It’s like something Brian Eno said:

        “When you go into a gallery, you might see a most shocking picture. But actually you can leave the gallery. When you listen to a terrifying radio play you can switch the radio off. So one of the things about art is, it offers a safe place for you to have quite extreme and rather dangerous feelings. And the reason you can do that is because you know you can switch it off. So art has a kind of role there as a simulator. It offers you these simulated worlds – a little bit like a plane simulator, you know – the reason you have simulators for learning to fly a 747 is so that you don’t crash too many 747s – you can have a crash and get out and laugh. Well it’s true of art as well.”

        (Full transcript:

        I’m very careful about how I curate my experiences. I don’t like letting in a lot of senseless violence and drama into my brain, even through art. It’s got to be in support of something — and self-confidence is something I can get behind. It’s so different for every reader, though. One might like shootings in the name of justice (where I don’t see any justice), and another might be a fan of an arrogant dickhead in the name of logic and precision (and justice). But I’m just guessing. Maybe there are Charisma Molecules that make a thing good, and we just try to fit it into logical schemes . . . .

        Changing lanes: Sometimes it’s hard at the beginning of a draft to verbalize why This Is Right, and This Must Be. That terrible flaw in a manuscript (I’m thinking of my own writing right now) might be something I can only face on paper, not as a real-world application. Writing is hard, hard work.

        P.S. I should have probably put “massage parlor” in quote marks. Nothing wrong with a little “happy ending” I suppose, except I believe it’s illegal in most states.

        1. The more I think about this–from a personal standpoint, not a teaching standpoint–I don’t think it was the drug-dealing. I think it was her preying on the guy trying to go straight and her complete lack of vulnerability, plus I didn’t see any reason for her to NEED to get out of town (and I’m somebody who got the hell out of Dodge at seventeen). It’s the want vs need thing. I can certainly see why she’d want to get out of a small town where her identity was “drug-dealer,” I just didn’t see the pressing need that would convince a decent person that it’s all right to prey on others to achieve it.

        2. My first reaction to the headline was “Unsympathetic? Bring it on!” Mainly because some readers have objected to my strong heroines as not being nice or or emotional enough, whereas I like women who take charge and don’t necessarily flop over when The Man walks in the room.

          Then I read ‘drug dealer heroine coercing someone weaker’ and thought, Not for me. I work in the ER, so like Micki says, I end up curating my head space a bit (love that term. Also thought the John Peel speech was thought-provoking, although I think adults play, too, and not necessarily through art. Some like sports or star-gazing or other things that we usually categorize differently).

          Back to the original question. This sounds like someone who knows how to write, just needs to categorize it differently, and wanted a different teacher. If she was stubborn enough to walk out of your class, I wouldn’t worry too much about her. I suspect that she found her own path and her own audience. So, no need to feel guilty! You can probably Google her and find that she’s doing pretty well.

          Don’t read this paragraph if you’re a Bet Me fan: I felt like talking about how Bet Me is a fairy tale, so I Googled it, and came across some readers objecting to the food, Min’s size, and some people thinking Cal enabled her by feeding her. Ugh! Since I’ve heard about real-life fat fetishists, this ruined my reread. I’m astonished at what people will object to.

          Meanwhile, I also came across this:
          I know this is from ten years ago, but it seemed like the question was “Are rapist heroes going too far?” whereas I know writers getting pushback because their heroines don’t…I don’t know, weep? And do you really want your ER doctor/astronaut/shapeshifter bawling all over you? But I think that’s getting better, even just in the past five years.

          TL;DR: everyone can write what they like, but it’s not necessarily romance, and you won’t be able to teach them all.

          1. I never thought of Cal as a fat fetishist. He wasn’t trying to stuff her, he was giving her what she wanted. He never told her she was beautiful because she was fat because he didn’t see her as fat. He just said, basically, “Look, you’re an endomorph; trying to be an ectomorph won’t work and it’s making you unhappy.” He didn’t bring her doughnuts every day, Chicken Marsala is not Fettucini Alfredo, and most of their interactions were not about food. But if people are sensitive to that, there’s nothing I can do.

            I’ve also gotten complaints about how aggressive my heroines are about sex because they ask for it; as one person put it, “That makes her seem desperate.” No, that makes her seem like a healthy person who knows what she wants.” I’ve gotten complaints about my heroines being over thirty because it’s better for the babies to have younger mothers. I had a PETA member weigh in on something I can’t remember now, it was odd, but she was definitely accusing me of endangering animals. (It was really a reach; something about Min being overweight which meant she was eating too much meat? Maybe not that, but that kind of reach.) I had somebody complain that I was pushing an LGBTQ agenda because the heroine in Charlie All Night had a long-time gay roommate, and they had a great relationship; she was online somewhere and said that no woman would live with a gay guy, and then she got buried under responses that basically said gay guys were the perfect roommates and she was nuts. So that part was good.

            The being that you can’t think “Will this offend a reader?” because the answer is always, “Yes, somewhere a reader will be offended.” Which is why I shouldn’t have critiqued the heroine’s actions, I should have asked about her motivations. Because the key, as we’ve already discussed here, is “Does the motivation make the action understandable?” Is it all right for this heroine to victimize others to escape from her small town?” THAT’s the question I should have asked, although even that has a value judgment in it.

          2. We’re not going to be able to escape value judgments. This is because we’re dealing with preferences here, not empirical results. The key is to make the author perform the value analysis, because that’s where she or he can assess if their character works or not. I know that for me the reason behind the behavior would need to be pretty serious to accept the bullying she did. And that can come out in the book, perhaps as the work that she needs to do to be able to love someone. But I question her ability to understand that as an author if she couldn’t defend that position to someone she was paying to improve her process.

          3. Jenny, I’m glad that you’re not bothered by the fat fetishist thing. I thought about writing back and trying to explain that in the fairy tale, he gives her what she needs, and she needs permission to eat sensibly and enjoy her curves, and that he wasn’t enabling her any more than he was enabling her snow globe/shoe/Elvis cat needs, but I wasn’t sure the audience would understand my comment.
            I am astonished by what people object to.
            Nicole, you’re right, we’re never going to escape that. I just makes me wonder if I’ll ever get a romance audience, because if they’re objecting to Jenny, I’d get non-stop hate.

          4. All of these value judgements that are floating around these days — it’s definitely an issue that needs the “middle-path” approach. We should be able to hear and to some extent understand people’s complaints and judgements (even if the reach is kinda reachy — although, I will say a lot of people don’t explain their judgements very well). But we also need the strength to stick to what we care about.

            I’m huge, so I don’t see Min as particularly obese. I think she’s probably what my mother would have called “pudgy”. And I don’t see Cal as being a fat fetisher so much as being a hedonist — maybe a vicarious hedonist. He likes her curves, but what he really seems to get off on is the way her face melts in delight when she bites into a brat. THAT’S what he wants to give her — pleasure in all the associated ways. Food is part of it, but I believe he also thinks that he wishes he could make her look like that during the sex.

            (-: I may be bringing my own motivations to dear ol’ Cal to some extent; my current hero is definitely a hedonist who loves seeing those around him dissolve into a jelly of pleasure. OTOH, maybe my Jack owes a whole lot to Cal.

  9. I wonder if the author’s attitude of “it’s no big deal” actually undercut the whole point of working with an unlikeable protagonist, and also undercut the heroine’s being “fascinating” that might make up for being unlikeable.

    I mean, if the protagonist is going to be/do something offputting, it should be worth the effort. It should be “a big thing.” Otherwise, what’s the point? Dexter’s murders are not “no big deal,” and Leverage’s thefts/cons aren’t “no big deal,” and so on. They’re big deals, and everyone — characters, writers, viewers — all know it. And that’s what makes the characters interesting.

    So, a protagonist who’s “only” a petty wrong-doer is neither fascinating nor likeable. Sort of the worst of all possible worlds. If you’re going to write an anti-heroine, then go whole hog. Otherwise, the author risks turning off a bunch of readers without ever having the potential emotional pay-off that would come from the anti-heroine having done something the author considers truly bad. It just seems limiting in how much of an epiphany/arc the character is likely to have, if the author is starting with “what she’s doing isn’t all that bad.” (It’s different if the author knows it’s bad, and it’s just the character’s rationalization, but in the case at hand, it’s the author who’s setting out the pill-selling as not that bad.) So, the biggest transformation the protagonist could have, given the author’s world view, is to go from doing something that isn’t too bad to giving up the something that isn’t too bad. That’s a lot more limited than going from something that’s terrible, but that the protagonist doesn’t acknowledge is terrible, to acknowledging it’s terrible and then giving it up.

    1. Oh, that’s a good point. I never got to the stakes because I was so gobsmacked by the drug dealing. But there were any number of ways she could have left town, and she chose stealing and selling pills. And you’re right; that undercuts the intensity of the arc significantly.

  10. I think you can’t take yourself out of the equation. As a reader, you’re invited to spend time in a world the writer’s created. You’re going to be co-creating the story as you read, so it’s an extremely intimate involvement. I often give up on stories whose worldview is amoral or bleak. But I think usually their authors wouldn’t see their worlds the way I do, and I can see that they have other readers who don’t, either.

    Your student might now find an audience if she was upfront about the kind of story she was telling, but as a romance reader, it wouldn’t include me. Genres are expanding, subdividing, and being invented all the time now, and of course the world’s changing all the time, too. I’ve always been turned off by hyperconsumerist romance, for example – sex and shopping – but evidently many readers enjoy it and aspire to live in its world.

  11. I’m so over unsympathetic leads in romances and, especially, chick lit.

    For a while there, it felt like that was all we were getting, and it completely put me off the genre. Terrible people may need love too, but I don’t need to write about it.

    Baggage and The Magicians are the only books I’ve loved where I want to punch the leads. It takes a LOT. There has to be a reason to continue with the story. There has to be a reason the person is who they are.

    1. I don’t read chick lit anymore either. I found most of the heroines to be fairly whiny and silly, in an effort to be funny(?).

  12. I keep thinking about what you and Lani would say in PopD – that romance readers (and watchers) get that emotional hit and catharsis from great romance stories.

    I think the protagonist you described would not give people that. Partly because of the anti-hero nature, partly because the stakes weren’t high enough, partly because it was “no big deal”….all those things together mean that a reader would really have a tough time getting that hit.

    And I think it’s probably a combination. Inherent predatory selfishness + stakes that are too low = Not a protagonist I want to see win.

    Make her less predatory – a Robin Hood dealing pills to peoplr without health insurance who actually need them but can’t afford them. She steals them from the office where she works or whatever. Probably because someone died for lack of proper care and she doesn’t want that to happen again. Still illegal, but now more honorable, more sympathetic.

    Or raise the stakes – she’s doing it because she’s desperate to raise money to save her brother’s/kid’s/granddad’s life, home, or business. Now she’s doing it against her own code because she feels she doesn’t have a choice. That gives her choice some heft AND creates sympathy.

    Getting out of a small town? People do that every day without resorting to drug dealing.

    I think seeing where the story went might have helped, but not that story at that time. Because the author thought it was no big deal, she wasn’t going to write a big transformative arc….or she’d have said so.

    I think having a protagonist do something immoral or unlikable is possible, but I think it has to be really well-motivated to keep reader sympathy. Esp in a romance.

    1. I’m dealing with this for one of my protagonists — she’s an antihero who uses violence and death as a quick go to solution for the problems she faces, and since she’s functioning in a soft apocalypse setting she does that a lot. But I’ve worked to make her positive points clear too, like her loyalty and respect for the chain of command and how she does what she does beause if she doesn’t then people, including those she cares about, are going to die and things are going to get far worse. I’ve had alpha readers tell me that they want to read more of what happens to her, and one of them told me that she likes reading about her but wouldn’t like knowing her. She was my first real exploration of writing an antihero, and the original short story has morphed into a novel in process instead. And yes, I know this is in essence a urban fantasy setting and not a romance, so I get there’s a difference. (there’s some romance, because it’s clear she loves her wife so much she’d put her life on the line for Laurie, but their relationship isn’t the crux of the story) But there has to be room for all kinds of characters if the romance category is as robust as the other meta-genres. That said, it comes back to this — if the main character is a predator, no matter if the person is a vampire or a drug dealer or even a serial killer, that predation has to work on some level within the story. Stories aren’t about people, they’re about characters, a sub-category of people who are both realistic enough to let the reader connect with them and also serve the needs of the story being told, so they have to provide something for the plot or situation to be workable. If the character’s predation doesn’t somehow serve the story to enhance it then it’s at best a blind alley and at worst a distraction from the business at hand. I’ve read too many books with florid extraneous detail like wardrobe inventories, off topic discussions about things that never serve the story at all, side trips that are just that, and exacting scene descriptions. Those are useful to the writer because it lets the character come into focus, but they make the finished work flabby. This is why I like short fiction lengths — you can tighten things up in a 1000 word work so the focus is clear and everything serves the story, and 100 word drabbles take it a lot further in getting down to a single idea.

      1. I think that’s why I’m still sorry I reacted the way I did: I don’t believe there are any characters that shouldn’t be written. Especially I don’t believe there are any characters that shouldn’t be written because I have a personal aversion to them.

        1. Yes but this character was supposed to be the heroine of a romance. You probably wouldn’t have reacted this way if she were the sister of the heroine in a romance or the protagonist in a novel. Maybe a black comedy or something. This isn’t about the character really it’s about the story arc.

  13. I think my comment got eaten? I apologize if this is the second one. I agree a lot of what has already been said.

    But the short(er) version of what I posted is, I think it’s very subjective. Varies a lot from person to person, genre to genre, and the time you are at in your life.

    I don’t like particularly dark protagonists, but I know some people do. And I did at other times in my life.

    I’m also picky b/c I also don’t like “perfect” protagonists (she’s gorgeous, smart, everyone loves her, she’s never said an unkind word about anyone, etc) and I don’t like overly earnest and serious protagonists. Life’s short, if you can’t laugh at yourself or your life (at least every once in a while) I’m not going to spend my free time on you.

    I talk about books with a lot of friends and I’ve yet to find a universally liked protagonist. It’s like a universally liked book. It doesn’t exist.

  14. You can get away with characters doing really awful things in certain genres by framing it all as comedy. For example, one of the protagonists in Orphan Black is a suburbs housewife gets addicted to drugs, goes through rehab, and then becomes a dealer herself. It is pretty much all framed as dark comedy. Screwball shenanigans often become rather horrifying when taken at face value, because they tend to handwave the consequences and fallout, or frame the consequences as comedic, as well.

    But people also lap up angsty romances where everyone is awful to one another. See especially teen dramas, or the new millenial college/new-grad dramas, like Lena Dunham’s Girls. I feel like maybe too many YA romance novels deliberately have insufferable protagonists, as a means of highlighting the uncertainties and anxieties of adolescence and how teens lash out in reaction.

    Meanwhile, Kdramas, both romcom or dramatic romance, often seem to forget that Darcy was actually kind to his friends and employees, and have straightforward jerkwad heroes galore. Sometimes they don’t even get their comeuppance, because the forceful wrist grabs and wall slams and acts of jealousy ruining people’s lives are all coded as pigtail pulling romance. And the audiences keep swooning, somehow.

    I think it’s a case where the framing controls the reception of the content. The protagonist could do pretty much any heinous act, and so long as the audience is primed in the right way (which might be as simple in visual media as having an eyecandy actor), it won’t impact the character’s likability negatively.
    There’s plenty of hand-wringing in fandom about people who keep romanticizing villains as their chosen heroes. Draco Malfoy, Kylo Ren, various vampires.

    Would you watch the version of Galavant where Magdalena was the primary protagonist from the beginning?

    1. Yeah, this reminds me of “The Family” on the Carol Burnett show. One time they played the story straight in rehearsal, just to see what it’d come across like, and she said that afterward they wre horrified at how easy it was to turn the comedy into a sad and dismal drama. They swore to never do that ever again. Framing is vital.

      1. Comedy (not farce) is built on pain. That’s fascinating about the Burnett show, but it’s a perfect example. If there are no stakes under the jokes, if there’s no truth there, then there’s no cathartic laugh.

        1. It struck me that in another world, the scenario in the opening post would be that the sad sack guy is the protagonist, the dealer bullying him is his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the cop is the meddling antagonist, and the bullying is coded as pushing him out of his comfort zone and Discovering Life! A very common romance scenario.

          Which, yeah, I’d rather read it from the MPDG’s twisted point of view. There does seem to be a market slowing growing around that kind of trope subversion by playing out how horrible the trope is when played straight. John Green’s Paper Towns, for example.

          1. Yeah, Stephen King had folks do this in his book “On Writing” — set up a scenario, then flip the genders. And though I don’t care much for his writing I found his writing instruction to be very useful and powerful. And besides, doing this illustrates how different gender roles make characters seem either mundane or exotic, believable or beyond what we can stand. Other inversions are possible too, and this is one of the reasons why I started writing a female black ops colonel who’s a lesbian female with a foul mouth and no moral compuctions about killing or inflicting pain. The best way to break something is to run up against it, hard, and stereotypes are as vulnerable to that type of bombardment as any other rigid structure.

          2. I read a great article (or book?) years ago saying that Jane Austen would flip her characters. She’d base a character on some obnoxious woman, then turn the character into a man, and watch how it would play out with the gender swap. Believable because vices aren’t really gender-specific, but also creative because sometimes we THINK vices are gender-specific, so it seems fresh when we see a boy or girl with a “new” vice. Or virture, for that matter.

    2. From the beginning? Nope. But I’d watch her as a primary once she’s alone in the castle with Gareth. Two horrible, vulnerable people, helplessly in love? Yep. The most romantic moment in that series was when he brought her the earrings with the ears attached, and then apologized because he’d forgotten to take the earrings off the ears, and she said, “No, no, I like them this way.” It was a beautiful moment, and I’m not even being snarky. It helps that those bitches deserved to lose their ears, but still . . .

      I adored Madalena. Anybody who can sing “Your castle and your ass’ll be mine,” is my kind of heroine. I would have easily watched a third season that was just Madalena trying to learn evil and Gareth trying to save her. “Thanks for the love.” Breaks my heart.

      1. Played straight, I think it would depend on getting some sort of backstory for Magdalena. The backstory doesn’t have to justify or explain her ambition, but be more like what Bad Code did for Root.

        Following Magdalena from the beginning wouldn’t be so different from watching the machinations of Lady Macbeth or any of her spiritual successors, from some Game of Thrones ladies, to Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

        What’s key for rooting for people murdering their way to the top seems to be having the proper opponents that we want to see toppled. Maybe Magdalena latched on to Galavant to escape another suitor, or to get one up over a nasty rival. That might make watching her at the beginning more palatable.
        Or maybe it’s Magdalena always knowing that she had the ability to do greater things than her given lot would allow her to (because gender/class roles), and so she gathers power in whatever ways she can.

        I’d watch that!

        1. There was back story with the earring sisters, humiliating her when she was little.
          And she didn’t start murdering until the end of the first season, and even then it was Richard’s horrible older brother.

          I think there’s a lot going on there. She didn’t dump Galavant for Richard in the beginning, Richard kidnapped her. Then Galavant, instead of rescuing her, got drunk for a year. So she looked at two selfish idiots and went for the one with money who would make her a queen. Not great choices. And when things got bad, she sang, “No one but you,” to herself, which I loved because it was such a pep talk about how strong she was and how she could do anything. She was rude to people, but I think Kingsley was the only person she killed. I think. And she truly loved Gareth as he loved her.

          Of course part of this was because the female lead, while spunky, just didn’t have the edge she did, and the main romance with Galavant was kind of blah. Whereas when Madalena walked in, blah went out the window.

          She didn’t kill anybody else, did she? Because if anybody deserved to be stabbed in the back, it was Kingsley.

          1. I get the impression Madalena killed lots of people off-screen, largely for throwaway jokes. The one I’m thinking of specifically is when she and Gareth are throwing each others’ things out the window; I’m pretty sure she says the rug is irreplaceable because she killed the entire family of weavers who made it.

            But: eh.

            I feel like characters on Galavant can totally get away with that kind of casual awfulness, because if it weren’t SO heinous plus SO blasé, then it wouldn’t be SO funny. I think it’s about what type of show it is and the implicit contract the writers have made with the audience? On a singing-knights-and-dancing-wizards show where murder is played for laughs, being a murderer isn’t a deal-breaker. Very different than a slice-of-life novel where people’s much more realistic lives can get much more realistically ruined.

            (Also, because I am totally this kind of person, so sorry!: Galavant didn’t get sloppy drunk until after Madalena rejected him. Doesn’t change your point, though; he was still an arrogant asshole. Even if he was all of “middling-to-fair” in bed.)

          2. Oh, you’re right. She rejected him and then he went downhill. Forget my argument.

            Richard killed a lot of people, too, including all of Chef’s family, and I still love Richard. Okay, it’s a farce, but that should have been a deal breaker. Maybe because it all happens off screen? No, it’s because its a farce.

          3. Great excuse to rewatch the first season, hah.
            Some backstory in ep. 2: she lived with a family who at one point got poor enough that she had to kill and eat her pet goat. And then she “made damn well sure I wouldn’t be in a position where I’d have to eat my favorite pet ever again,” as well as no longer examining what she ate too closely anymore.
            So following Magdalena is initially about her doing what she needs to to avoid ever lacking power, (again, I’m reminded of that shot of young sullen Root getting chewed out by the librarian) and suppressing any pesky feelings that would hinder her in that goal.

            But once she was queen, she saw that Richard wouldn’t discard her if she bit back, and secure in that power, she could begin to exert it. First by boinking the jester (without ever learning his name), then being nasty to Richard, both in trying to egging him to actually get the Jewel, and just being nasty because she disliked him. Her next act was to jail the jester because he’s no good to her developing a conscience. In the next episode is when we learn that she’s mean to her hand maiden, and is in a foul mood in general out of boredom and her perception that everyone around her is incompetent, and thus begins her own plotting.

            I guess in a modern setting, it would be not so different from the trajectory of Wolf of Wall Street. She starts to secure her financial position, but then discovers her own talents, and the audience wants to see competence porn.

            So in terms of likability, it seems that effectiveness can be a strong factor. A bumbling bullying drug dealer: unlikable. A masterful manipulator out-manuveuring her business competition: interesting!

          4. You know, I think I liked her because she was so ANGRY. With good reason. She did horrible things, but she never whined.

  15. I’m the wrong person to answer this (she said, answering) because I always find it hard to read a book unless I like someone in it. I read both Gone With The Wind and Wuthering Heights only as an adult, and hated both of them. Wasn’t as fond of Emma and Mansfield Park until I got older and had better perspective on the heroines. So you can see I am a wimp when it comes to anti-heroines. Though I had no problem with any of the Leverage characters, and I found both Phin and Davy flawed but charming. The thing I can’t stand is someone who has NO interest in growing or being a better person. There are a couple of popular series that I can’t read because the heroine solves a mystery each book but doesn’t become a more interesting person in any way. So I came around on Emma, but still can’t stand Scarlett. In my view, Emma arced, and Scarlett is still just pursing her selfish agenda. I know other people disagree, but I just can’t get it.

    On the other hand, my dear mother once said that she thought Mr Rochester was a terrible person, but Jane Eyre loved him, and that was enough to redeem him in her eyes, and I agreed with her about that. Call me inconsistent.

    1. I loathe Wuthering Heights. It was such a disappointment after Jane Eyre. I haven’t tried anything by the third Bronte sister.

      I have also been avoiding Gone With the Wind because I have a suspicion that I will not like it either. Bleh.

      1. I love Wuthering Heights because it’s two books really; the first one is about privileged, whiny Cathy who throws everything away, and then the second one is about her daughter, growing up with a terrible childhood, and not taking any crap from anybody. The first Cathy has everything and loses it, her daughter has nothing and has taken everything by the end of the book. She OWNS that story.

        1. I think I went it with the wrong expectations. I kept hearing about how romantic it was, and Heathcliff was this brooding hero of this beloved love story. And I didn’t not connect to it at all. You are right, the second Cathy is awesome. 🙂

          1. Yeah, Heathcliff and the first Cathy are idiots. Young, though, so that explains some of it.

    2. (-: I should have known someone would bring up Gone With the Wind before I blithered on about it. I really liked it as a powerless teen. I wonder how I would like it now?

      1. I love it more each time I read it. Then I saw the PBS bio of Margaret Mitchell and I love her even more.

        It helps if when you read it, you realize that through Scarlett, Margaret Mitchell is pointing out the idiocy of the Lost Cause. Because everyone in the book except Rhett is saved by Scarlett doing everything a proper Southern Lady should never do. And Rhett saves everyone Scarlett doesn’t save – even though he is also not a proper Southern gentleman.

        That’s not what the movie says – but the movie is more romantic in a way than the book.

    3. Emma was a little tough to take early on, but I think the arc worked for her. Never read Gone With the Wind; seeing the movie once was more than enough of that story for me. I will say this about movie-Scarlett: that woman had truly impressive survival instincts.

      I had to read Jane Eyre in high school, and I loathed Rochester. Not only did he lie about being married, but locking your mentally ill spouse in an attic with an incompetent alcoholic is not an acceptable way to deal with the problem. I get that it may have had more to do with the time period than the character, but I can’t get past it, particularly since he put everyone in the household at risk. So she’s a physical threat to everyone around her, but he doesn’t take enough steps to mitigate that risk, and she’s not competent enough to be held responsible for her actions but he doesn’t arrange for decent caretakers. Worst possible handling of the situation. My issues with him weren’t helped by the fact that my teacher followed it up with Wide Sargasso Sea, the feminist prequel about his first marriage from another author. I realize that I shouldn’t let that influence my opinion of the original text since Bronte didn’t write it, but it’s an association I can’t escape, and I already hated him.

      1. The thing about Wide Sargasso Sea is that she took a lot of her cues for that story from what Rochester says in Eyre. I loathed him just for what he said about her in the original.

        1. I think I noticed the places where it matches up with Eyre when I read it, but I just can’t remember it now. It’s been more than 10 years since I read either one. Both of them are probably still lying around my parents’ house, so a re-read may be in order. I don’t think I could make myself get through all of Jane Eyre again, though. I wouldn’t mind re-reading Sargasso; it probably worked better for me than Eyre because Rochester wasn’t supposed to be a romantic hero. He acts like a bastard, and the story clearly understands that he’s a bastard. So even though the end is depressing as hell, it makes sense.

  16. This is a wonderful conversation and the more I’ve thought about the original set up, the more I feel like the drug dealing protagonist wasn’t the problem. The problem in the set up (for me) would be the cop who falls in love with her. Having a pill dealing, unsympathetic protagonist doesn’t mean that protagonist remains unlikeable but how in the name of all that is right in the world does an upright law abiding cop, who loves his junkie brother, fall in love with the predator who is pushing his brother to get back into selling and procuring drugs?

    That would be the stopping point for me, because I can’t get from the predation of a loved one to loving the predator. It would almost be as if Tilda’s mom fell in love with Mason in Faking It – knowing that Mason wanted to use Tilda as Tilda’s father had, and had murdered people for greed. It makes no possible sense with what we know of her mother’s character.

    I don’t have a problem with unsympathetic, morally bankrupt characters. I still believe in the love story of Catherine Zeta Jones character in the movie Traffic with her husband. They were both reprehensible and I completely believed they loved each other and the life they built together. It also looked like they most likely wouldn’t have a HEA…but that’s a big risk when you are corrupt drug dealers.

    1. This is a great point. There’s a fairly common trope in Japanese manga of the innocent/morally upright hero falling for a Yakuza boss (though usually the Yakuza boss falls first), and I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading many of them and figuring out why some work for me and some don’t. One in particular was a young, upright cop falling for a young Yakuza heir, and while the characters were sweet and adorable, the lack of tension between the cop’s job and morals and the Yakuza situation finally killed it for me. The author seemed to treat “Yakuza” as a spice used for contrast, completely ignoring any criminal elements beyond the occasional kidnapping-one-so-the-0ther-can-rescue-them (they didn’t even bother with a “yeah we’re a yakuza family but we’re legit now” excuse, sigh). Meanwhile, another series, in which a timid doctor finds and treats a wounded Yakuza in an alley and romance awkwardly ensues, works for me because it owns the criminal side of things, and there’s actual conflict between the danger and attraction for each other (also I guess a doctor is breaking fewer direct vows, as it were, being with a criminal, than a cop whose job is to STOP CRIME).

      TLDR: Basically, for me, it comes down to the difference between, “It’s okay because I love you,” and, “It’s not okay, but I love you anyway.”

  17. All readers are different and what they consider unlikable is different, but I am one of those who has no interest in reading an unlikable protagonist. Why should I spend what little free time I have with someone I don’t like?

    It seems to me that part of what makes a protagonist unlikable is not so much what they do as why they do it. Someone who sells illegal pills to make money is entirely different than someone who sells pills to protect others from harm. Or someone who is selfish and inconsiderate to protect herself from (perceived) harm is different than the one who does it because they have no compassion for others.

    As for your student, the first responsibility of a student is to be willing to learn, to be open-minded, to, at the very least, consider that what they believe might be incorrect. She failed. Your responsibility as a teacher is to point out the flaws that you see. Telling her the protagonist was unlikable was your opinion, yes, but it was an opinion based on your study and knowledge of the genre. If you hadn’t pointed out a problem you could see and she couldn’t, then you would have failed.

  18. I have a tangential comment, from my younger daughter (now 19). She pointed out that the only white men can be anti-heroes – anyone else behaving that badly gets clobbered by plot, public opinion or both. Imagine Breaking Bad with Black men or Hispanic men. It completely changes the dynamic of the show, and what starts as a descent into evil instead starts as a battle against villainy. Black men, Hispanic men, men of any ethnicity other than white, are either heroes or behaving badly and villains.

    Women of any color or ethnicity cannot behave too badly because we (readers, watchers, public opinion) need them to have some redeemable feature.

    Which doesn’t mean that the heroine of a romance can’t be nuanced, it just makes it hard for any reader to follow characters behaving badly. This doesn’t answer your original question, but I think it does speak to why we, your commenters, want the heroine to be selling pills for a REASON and it has to be morally compelling. She can’t just have mixed impulses, or be careless with consequences, she has to have a view of the future and a need that over-rides current hazards.

    1. I agree in general, but I think there’s still a limit to antiheroes, even for white men. I never gave breaking bad a chance because it’s a show about a man picking a profession that hurts people, and then falling deeper into that profession. Obviously it’s about more than that, and I hear it’s a great show. But my granddad founded an alcoholics treatment center, so that’s a plot line where I know I will care more about the victims than the protagonist, even if it’s off screen.

      I think part of like ability is if you can see who’s hurt by a given behavior. there are a couple of ways to do this. You can have the victims on screen, but be bad ppl (leverage). You can have the victim on screen, but give the protagonist sufficient motivation mixed with the right amount of reluctance/ guilt. Or you can keep the victims off screen, and try to keep the viewer convinced it’s a victimless crime / not that big a deal. I think the third option has the widest range of results, because some ppl can go with it, but other ppl’s life experience means you can’t help but see the victims, even if the author doesn’t want you to.

    2. That’s a good point. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been careful not to make any of the bad guys in Nita people of color. It isn’t that non-whites can’t be bad, it’s that it’s too easy to read them into stereotypes and it’s done so often that it is a stereotype.

  19. I agree with carolc and others, motive is paramount. Someone can do awful things with the best motivation and be forgiveable (as a lot of people apparently found the protagonist in “Breaking Bad,” which I’ve never seen). But as also noted above, people get out of small towns, or other jams, all the time without dealing drugs.

    Personally, likeable/unlikeable or sympathetic/unsympathetic are flexible concepts. A protagonist may be both things at once. But I have to be able to IDENTIFY with the protagonist in some way.

    Tilda in “Faking It” – very unlike me, and made choices I would not have made, but I could totally identify with her because of her motivation. I also have made choices I resented because I thought other people, who I cared for, needed me to do certain things and would be screwed if I didn’t. BUT I also fell for her right off because of the dog.

    Regarding the core story above, as a setup for a romance novel it was deeply flawed – regardless of the alleged heroine’s motivation – because if the drug-selling heroine was supposed to end up with the small-town cop hero, but her initial drive was to get out of that small town, then how the hell was that supposed to work out?

    First of all, his job is to arrest her. Even if he didn’t (and he would also have failed as a protagonist for me if he didn’t, because apparently he walked right in on her coercing someone to break the law), how was the writer proposing to have the heroine get what she wanted – i.e., to get out of town – while staying with the hero? Was he supposed to give up his law-enforcement career to follow A DRUG DEALER?

    That student and her book had more than one problem, is all I’m sayin’.

  20. Cheese in the Trap was this kind of story for me. I haven’t read the book version (a comic book), but the live action drama hooked me.

    The protagonist is a sociopath and it’s a love story. He’s routinely cruel to classmates and the shy nerd catches him doing it. She’s appalled, but he’s fascinated by her. Moth to a flame kind of attraction. Twisted. But I was hooked like everyone else.

    In the books, they explain his reasons for being cruel and then he changes. Sadly, the drama had some fluke issue and changed the entire story 8 episodes into the drama. They completely changed the love interest (which was bizarre). Fans of the comic were furious. They loved the romantic relationship of the two leads and wanted to see the HEA as promised. I couldn’t finish it after they ditched him as the lead. I never got answers to my questions about what kid of romantic lead I will put up with either.

    Most viewers and readers loved his character, I think because he never killed anyone (although he was cruel) and because his meanness had a perverse sense of justice attached to it. The fans loved him.

    He was flawed and she saw his flaws, and then he changed. And she changed, too. Or, at least, they were supposed to change. I was waiting to see what I thought about them getting together, and it was going to depend on why and how they changed as people. Too bad I missed out, but they are remaking it as a movie and using the same leading man. Wild.

    Anyway, the cop/drug dealer thing sounds like a poor set up, and as a teacher, you have a responsibility to share your insight. You didn’t tell her not to write it. You explained why it’s a flawed set up for the romance genre, which is part of your job. If she hadn’t left, but continued to try and write what she wanted, I’m sure (based on your handling of the blog over the years) that you wouldn’t have brow-beaten her. You would have continued to work with her and she could have learned from the class.

    The thing is, her reaction was extreme, and that always makes me question myself in those types of situations. Leaving the class didn’t seem warranted. However, if she didn’t like what you had to say, maybe it was right for her to try and learn from someone with a different style. I doubt she’ll find someone to encourage her cop/drug dealer set-up, but maybe what she really discovered was that she wanted to tell a different kind of story – like a breaking bad. Maybe leaving gave her a new direction. I know you feel that if you had said things differently, she might have stayed, but maybe staying wasn’t what she needed to do, and maybe what she found after breaking from the class was that she wanted to write something different all along.

  21. I haven’t read the comments (busy packing for a trip) so my apologies if I’m repeating what someone else says. I think that people have different tolerances for different things, based partly on their own life experiences. So for some, a drug dealing woman is a no go, but for others, a goody two shoes would turn them off. (Okay, simplification. blah.)

    So what I think it comes down to is how much you are willing to risk turning some folks off. If you can reach your readers, then fine, write that protagonist. But if you are trying for a wider audience them maybe you have to tone that protagonist down. Again simplification, I really think writers should write the story in their head without regards to the reader. You can always decide to change things based on your beta readers.

  22. Maybe it is a character’s understanding of why what they are doing is wrong that marks the line in the sand? For example, I was reading and enjoying Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series and enjoying it. And Stephanie would brush the lines of almost cheating in the course of her love triangle, but she was very aware of it and felt bad. Then in later books, this awareness decreases until she is straight up cheating. I put the last one I read in disgust and never picked up another. I found out later that there is a ghost writer involved, but still.

    I think I could be okay with a drug dealing heroine if a. she had a good reason and b. she knew it was wrong. J.R. Ward has a book where one of her heroines is a prostitute and she has THE BEST REASON EVER and hates herself but does it anyway because she has to, and I loved her for it.

    P.S. I love Davy with all of my heart. Phin I took longer to warm up to, but that’s probably because he reminds me of boys who ignored me in high school. His perfectness was off-putting. But he is too darned hot to ignore.

    1. There are some amazing people who are (or have been) prostitutes, it’s a profession that makes people vulnerable to abuse and trafficking(especially in countries where it is illegal) but I don’t see how someone who willingly engages in the act of prostitution is hurting anyone else.

      1. Agreed. I just wasn’t sure how the author would deal with it in a protagonist in a romance novel. Mostly it is avoided. Linda Howard’s Death Angel is another book that deals with it well, and somewhat realistically I think. I guess I was trying to express more of an example of what might be considered taboo in a female protagonist in a romance than something I personally considered to be a point of no return. I made a mess. Apologies.

  23. I would hate a drug pusher as a protagonist too. She doesn’t care about anyone but herself and she is ruthless to get it her way (from your description). She is clearly an antagonist, a ‘bad guy’ of the story. I wouldn’t read her romance. She should be sent to prison, not get an HEA.
    BTW: I love Davy Dempsey. A lovable crook is one thing – he helps people who need help and only tricks those who deserve it. I want a Davy Dempsey in my life. But a drug pusher is just wrong for a romance heroine. I don’t care about her happiness. She deserves punishment, not happiness.

  24. I was in a critique group with someone who wrote an amazing first 30 about a young woman who had been arrested overseas for drug smuggling and the only way she got out of that country’s jail system and extradited back to the US was to get pregnant (in jail, I assume with one of the wardens). At the start of the novel, she’s in the US and struggling to find the work her parole requires, and she’s an uninvolved mother, dumping her infant daughter with her parents (with whom she lives) It was brilliantly done, but the author was writing a romance. Literary Fiction, yes. Romance, no. A neglectful, drug smuggling, irresponsible heroine wasn’t going to cut it with romance readers IMO, and I told her that although it was really well done, the readers in that genre were going to crucify her.
    I have no idea what she went on to do with the book, but I hope she published it as LitFic.

  25. I think the protagonist can start out unlikeable and change, or we can see only the unlikeable parts at first and then see the admirable parts later. (Flowers from the Storm is something of a mix of both.) You could write this protagonist as having a big motive and being torn up by what she is doing or as not understanding what harm she had done and then learn it and be horrified. This was only the first chapter so it could have worked.

    Or she could have been a fascinating character that wasn’t a protagonist.

    Now that I think of it you can even have a villain in one book become the hero in the next (The Lion’s Daughter followed by Strangers in the Night ).

    But that wasn’t going to happen with your student because that author didn’t understand the moral dimensions of what the protagonist was doing. She couldn’t write either of those plots. The problem wasn’t the character, it was the author’s understanding.

    I’m trying to think of a hero or heroine that was unlikeable all the way through the book.
    Maybe Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart or Shadowheart last the longest but by the end you like them enough to want them to have a happy ending. And as much as I admire those books I don’t want to reread them.

    Ultimately I think you have to want the character to be happy. That means you have to like them. I can’t imagine wanting an unpleasant character to be happy–even if they were funny, for example, or if they did something heroic. I might be fine with their getting a happy ending but it wouldn’t be something I actively wanted.

    Also, Davy and the car revenge won my heart.

  26. This is a fascinating conversation. I think part of it, for me, comes down to what I think of as what a good romance – what a good marriage should be about – is. I’ve always felt that the best romances are the ones where the couples are more together than they are apart, and the ones that bring out the best in each other.

    From a story point of view, for example, I’ve never entirely bought into Leonard and Penny’s relationship in Big Bang Theory because they always seem to feed into each other’s insecurities and make each other worse, whereas Sheldon and Amy seem to grow together and become far more than the sum of their parts. In the Kdrama Boys Over Flowers, the lead character ends up with the annoying, arrogant rich-boy instead of the nice guy who’s always looking out for her, and that relationship feels right to me, because she’s the one who smacks him into an awareness of the damage he’s doing and makes him want to be better, and he makes her fight for what she wants while the nice guy seems to sap her vitality. And the male lead in The Duff is a complete dick who figures out where he’s gone wrong (and there’s more to his motivation than Bianca is initially aware of) and works to fix it, after Bianca has dealt with him. But all of those characters, I buy into because there is something in the story, the writing, the characters that made me want to keep going, and my trust was vindicated – the characters grew into a solid HEA.

    So from the point of view of the story that the student was writing, if the best her main character can be is a pill dealer who doesn’t see the problem with dragging down someone else who is trying to get free, then I don’t want to read about her. If her relationship with the cop leads her to figure out the damage she’s doing, then maybe. But I’d have to trust the author a heck of a lot to go there, and if the author doesn’t see the problem, then it doesn’t bode well for her character.

    1. Yeah, this is part of why I liked the couple in the most recent fiction I’ve read, Night Room by E. M. Goldman. Though they didn’t seem like a couple in the here and now, they made a great couple in the virtual future, and you could understand how they got there based on the subtle clues.
      This is why I couldn’t get any further in George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire. The good guys were hosed over and over again, the bad guys were rewarded, and nothing in the book made up for this. I know lots of people are gaga over his writing, but for me it didn’t get me there.
      I’ve noticed several folks referring to HE — It took me a bit to figure out it was in all caps, because the screen reader doesn’t tell me that, and it seems like a piece of jargon — to what are y’all referring? Healthy Environment? Happy Ending? Hamster Elevator? Prithee Willis, about what dost thou speak?

          1. I vote for Hamster Elevator. Maybe one that’s powered by another hamster in a wheel.

            ETA: There is a you tube video on how to make a hamster elevator.

    2. That’s a good point about Sheldon and Amy, two of the least attractive characters on TV (not physically, emotionally). And yet I am so a fan of Shamey. When Sheldon’s pals got him an internet date, I was tense–Sheldon’s a pain in the ass but he has a good heart–and then there was Amy who, when he asked if he could get her a beverage, said, “Yes, a tepid water, please,” and that was it for me. They’re wonderful together.

      But I think a lot of that (beyond the genius of the two actors) is how damn vulnerable they are. You just ache for them.

  27. I think the popularity of self-publishing and New Adult has really expanded the definition of what’s “acceptable” in romance. A few years back I read Karina Halle’s (self-published) book Sins and Needles. It’s the start of a trilogy starring a con woman, who has a lot of self-worth issues and goes back home for the first time in years, only to runite with the high school (male) best friend she betrayed. He’s the hero, though the trilogy is a love triangle, and at one point after they reconnect and he forgives her and they begin a relationship, she tries to rob his tattoo shop and hightail it out of town (he catches her). It was shocking to me to read a romance where the heroine literally AND figuratively wants to screw the hero. They also say some incredible cruel things to one another (they’re both very damaged and flawed) that I never expected to see in romance, but it actually does somehow work for them. It feels like a romance, there are some (other) very romantic moments, you believe these two are meant to be together. This book ends on a cliffhanger and book two sends the protag back to her sociopathic gang leader/assassin ex, and I had no interest in reading that one, but from what I read she sort of loses all hope and gives in to darker impulses and cheats on the hero with him and does a lot of terrible things, before they find their way back to each other for an HEA. I can’t say if that would’ve worked for me but the first book really did, much to my surprise.
    On a lesser villianous level, my favorite romance of the last few years had a card-counting heroine who fleeced men at poker games so she could save enough money to buy her independence (she was a kept woman/courtesan). That’s more of the “if you have a good reason” variety, but I never once really thought much about how she was a bad person because she was cheating/stealing.
    So I imagine a lot of it does come down to the actual execution, the personal baggage a reader might have, and also the amount of guilt/self-loathing/self-awareness the character has. Someone who’s nonchalant about doing bad things and doesn’t struggle at least a little with it, is a lot harder sell.
    Related, sort of, the recent TV show Impostors is a good one you might like (due to your Leverage love). It also stars a con woman, who’s actually part of a team of con artists, and the protagonists are three former “spouses” (2 guys and 1 girl) she conned who want to track her down and demand explanations. They do but they get sucked into the world of con artistry while doing so. It had a great first season.

  28. I think there’s a lot to be said for the bullying aspect of that situation. Basically good person caught up in doing bad things – that’s intriguing, and I’m willing to go along with that dilemma for a while. But nasty person doing nasty things? Ain’t my cup of tea. Don’t find Breaking Bad or even Weed remotely interesting. More interested in that Russian spy show ( or was, until the November travesty) because of the dichotomy between the couple.
    Jenny, I think there was a lesson to be learned there, but honestly, I think you’ve learned it. I agree with the others who have mentioned the student’s role and responsibility in that incident, because she does have culpability, too. Think you should let yourself off the hook now.

  29. “Terri” was a woman with a mission, to leave her one horse town in her rear view mirror, she wasn’t going to let anything get in her way, not even if it meant forcing her reformed drug supplier to break the law one more time or facing down his lawman brother determined to keep him on the straight and narrow.

    Definitely not romance material, no romance editor would have touched it with a barge pole, cause she broke the golden rule.

    People read romance to escape

    You shouldn’t feel guilty, you told her the truth. Readers don’t want to read about a smart capable woman, deciding with all the legal options open to her, the way to go was to drag someone else back into a life of crime, for no more motivation for then leaving town, when other sane people when their back is to the wall just pack their bags and stick out their thumb. Also a lawman who falls for a woman who ruined his brother’s life definitely dumb as a rock.

    Yes, heroines can suffer terrible childhoods or do things that are morally reprehensible, but usually for reasons of life and death, to protect someone else, to save her family. We have to believe there is no other option for them, or that they were lied to and believe they are doing this for a greater good. We read romance for the happy ending and we have to believe heroines deserve one.

  30. Maybe the real question here is, what is the role of the teacher? Was it just your job to help her improve her writing? Or was your job to get her closer to publication/good sales?

    I recently judged a contest with a YA entry. The scene was a first meet, told from the hero’s POV. He was a jock and the heroine was this hippie chick. Although she wasn’t his type, he was drawn toward her anyway. (Of course.) Inside his head, we learned he had already had a girlfriend. He catalogued her attributes–cheerleader, good tits, nice ass. He finished up by noting that she gave good head, so he had no complaints.

    My gut reaction was “I hate this guy.”

    We judges had been cautioned to be encouraging and not to destory anyone’s dreams, so I deleted that and explained the challenges writers encounter with unlikeable protagonists–namely, that a chunk of readers will refuse to read on. I suggested reading “Save the Cat,” but I’m not sure that cat was salvageable.

    It wasn’t that I didn’t find the protagonist believable, it was that I couldn’t see myself investing several hours reading about that guy.

    Unlikeable protagonists are a hard sell. In romance, they’re damn near an impossible sell. You told your student something she needed to know. It’s unfortunate she couldn’t hear you.

    1. I think the role of the teacher is show how to make a better story through craft, not content. Whether or not it was ever going to sell as a romance was immaterial. This was her story, and it was my job to help her make it as good as it could be.

      1. Yeah, I agree with that. I think I’ve made similar mistakes teaching art and design. It’s surprisingly hard to distinguish between craft and taste sometimes.

      2. After reading this discussion I’m pretty sure this was about craft as well as content. Part of craft is developing a story arc and a character arc, writing credible characters, all the stuff people said here. If her response had been “the heroine thinks it’s just pills, the hero thinks it’s a big deal, that’s part of the story arc” your reaction would have been different. But she couldn’t see why these two characters were implausible as a couple or that she would have to address that in her writing.

      3. How could you make it better? She didn’t want to hear that a dealer bullying a guy who’s trying to get clean is not someone most of us want to read about.

        If she wants to write it as literary fiction maybe – but a romance? Ask her how many romances have the heroine beating her kids? How many historicals have the hero be a slave catcher?

        I will tell you frankly – her answer gives me a bad feeling. And it gives me the bad feeling that she’s the one who thinks that dealing in pills is no big deal because she’s done it. Or she’s very close to someone who has.

        Even before the opiod epidemic, a dealer is like a pimp. A con man, a thief, a prostitute – I can see how you can make them sympathetic – although most of the stories are about people trying to get out of those professions. A dealer, a pimp- no.

        I agree it’s not your job to tell her what story to tell, but it is your job to point out to her where her story fits in a canon. And she’s writing at best something that’s existentialism or porn, not romance.

        Her problem is (and I’m guessing here) she expected you to say “Oooh, how daring! How clever! You’re so cool.” And when you didn’t appreciate her genius, she walked away because she didn’t want criticism – she wanted raves.

        But that’s not a teacher’s job – that’s for the fangirls.

    2. But that setup seems to be a staple of teen romantic comedies. They’re often set from the point of view of the rather sexist teenage guys, jocks or nerds, who only see girls as The Way To Sex.
      For some examples, there’s She’s All That or 10 Things I Hate About You, where the hero explicitly sets out to manipulate a girl. (Plus, those were both teen movie adaptations of Pygmalion and Taming of the Shrew, respectively)
      And then you’ve got Cruel Intentions, also a teen movie adaptation of older literature.

      But then there’s the likes of Weird Science or American Pie or Superbad, where the main plot is “horny dudes try to get The Sex,” and while they do have their share of people who find the protagonists repulsive, overall they had an audience root for the guys.

      Maybe YA gets different standards because YA readers want to read about protagonists as flawed and insecure as they are. The relatability trumps the likability. Or the relatability of a teenager being somewhat of a horrible person is what makes the YA reader like the protagonist, because they don’t necessarily read the motivation as that horrible.

      1. Well, in Weird Science and American Pie the audience connected with the main characters because they were the underdogs, and it was a chance for someone who is the object of ridicule finding something positive. And AP also has sympathetic characters who help make things better — Jim’s dad, and the way Chris will sacrifice things he likes because he’d rather be together with Heather. That one was a powerful dynamic, as seeing a jock who loves someone so much that he’ll give up sports for her and take a demotion in status felt so good that it helped in overlooking Jim’s convoluted problems.

        1. That’s why it’s fascinating to me to see what kind of motives will get the audience on the protagonists’ side. It seems with Jim’s dad, you’ve got a little of “well if this good supporting character likes the protagonist, they must see something in them, we’ll trust their judgement.” And with some of the others, it’s sympathy for the social shame they feel at being virgins.

          On the other hand, as the conversation around rape culture has become more widespread, there have definitely been reevaluations of these characters as disgusting by some, because the consequential reality of their actions is their preying upon (or attempting to prey on) various women.

          1. You know, this is one of the places where flipping the roles doesn’t connect with many folks. Though as a culture we’re finding far less tolerance for guys who try so hard to get into a girl’s pants, putting a woman or girl in that role seems to get far more disgust from folks. It plays so far against the stereotype that I haven’t met much of anyone who would watch it outside of the blue movie trade. (Which isn’t about connecting with the characters much anyway) There are so many male characters who show that lack of social skills and obsession with casual sex that don’t flip well to female roles, and trying to do this with characters like Stiffler, the weeding crashers, or Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame would cause far more of an uproar. We accept far less from our male characters than we do of our women in that regard.

          2. I guess as a teen (and to some extent now), I identify as a nerd before I identify as a woman. There are a lot of comedies about scheming women, trying to get a ring on their finger. (The one I love best: How to Marry a Millionaire.)

            The ends, in both cases, are really important. Sex, and money (or rather a steady food/shelter dynamic for self and any possible children). But the means are so iffy in both examples (Revenge of the Nerds, and How to Marry a Millionaire). I can’t remember who wrote HMMM — I should check it out. How many women write golddiggers?

          3. It definitely ends with all the women hoodwinked into marrying good men; don’t they all faint at the end or something? (It’s been years since I read that book.)

            The one I want to see again is Ask Any Girl. It’s definitely a mid20th c. women as objects movie, but I loved the premise: a secretary who’s been sexually harassed by every boss she’s had finally gets one she falls in love with. The boss’s stuffy no-nonsense brother who is also his partner is fed up with the boss because he’s a skirt chaser instead of paying attention to the business, so he decides it’s time the boss gets married and makes a deal with the secretary: he’ll help her marry his brother. He steals his brother’s black book and uses the notes to teach the secretary to be the boss’s Perfect Woman. And of course he falls in love with the secretary and she with him, but by then the boss is ready to propose. It’s a screwball comedy, but I remember it being really well done. Shirley Maclaine plays the secretary, David Niven is the brother, and Gig Young is the boss. I’m afraid if it ever comes out on digital, it’ll be horribly sexist instead of just mildly sexist, although Maclaine ends up with both of them mad about her.

            The best dumb blonde in a comedy is still Glenne Headley in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The ending of that movie warms my heart every time I remember it. “This is Rupert. He’s mute.”

          4. I like How to Marry a Millionaire. Monroe and Grable never really had a chance to marry rich guys (Grable’s was already married and Monroe’s was the same kind of fake-rich she was). It helps that I’m a big William Powell fan. I always liked the way Bacall and Powell interacted in that, even when she called off the wedding. She genuinely liked him and enjoyed spending time with him; it wasn’t like she hated him personally and was planning to cheat on him while she waited for him to die or something.

            My favorite movie gold digger is easily Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Part of that is because my favorite thing about that movie is Lorelei and Dorothy’s friendship – that’s a great thing to watch. But I also just find Lorelei entertaining. One of my favorite scenes is when she finally meets her rich boyfriend’s father, and it takes her all of three minutes to get past all his objections to their relationship. “Say, they told me you were stupid. You don’t sound stupid to me.” “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.”

        2. I’m going to have to look for Ask Any Girl — sounds like a riot!

          There’s an old one that I loved as a teen, and I still love a lot now called “If A Man Answers”. Off-topic, because nobody’s really reprehensible — attractive people tricking each other into a life of love and honesty.

          One of the basis premises is that heroine’s French mother gives her a dog-training manual to “train” her husband. She says something like women give more love and attention and reinforcement to their dogs than to their family, and that’s a real pity. The scheme works great until the Evil Girlfriend reveals to hubby that he’s been “treated like a dog”.

          Such a silly little comedy, but I’ve seen it twice in the past two years, and would see it again tonight if I had time.

          These people are gorgeous. Isn’t it terrible that gorgeous people get a pass? They can be more horrible than the rest of us, and we give them an extra five minutes or so to prove that they really are worth knowing.

          1. But the funny thing about If a Man Answers is – it’s positive training years before anyone was seriously doing positive dog training. It helps that it’s Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin IIRC but the positive training is actually shown to work both for him and the dog.

            How to Marry a Millionaire is based on a play by Zoe Atkins and which is reworked by Nunnally Johnson who also did The Grapes of Wrath, Roxie Hart (think Chicago), The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and a couple dozen other movies. My memory is Lauren Bacall’s character is bound and determined not to marry a poor man ever again and actually lands William Powell – who is old & rich, only to turn at the last moment to Cameron Mitchell whom she thinks is poor. Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe end up with poor men.

            But even though Bacall is playing someone hard as nails who is only out for a rich husband, you can tell throughout the movie that she’s been hurt and she’s acting out of that hurt against her own nature. And in the end, she can’t do it.

            Which is why Cameron Mitchell’s last lines are so perfect in that movie.

          2. Thanks for the info, Bridget! I will have to seek out a little more by Zoe Atkins (How to Marry a Millionaire, and others).

          3. Hi Micki,

            I haven’t seen it but at least one of the movie versions of Three Broadway Girls (again based on Zoe Atkins’ play) is Pre-code and stars Joan Blondell.

            I love pre-code movies but they’re an acquired taste. If you don’t like B&W, never mind.

          4. I know – who picks Cameron Mitchell over even an old William Powell?

            I once was talking in an office with a lot of men and they were saying how disgusting it was that one of the new kids was dating a woman in her late 30s and he was under 25 – and I pointed out that if we reversed it, most guys wouldn’t even bat an eye.

            But then one of them said “Well, not if they’re really old. I mean Fred Astaire marrying a 20 year old is pretty disgusting too.”

            And I said. “No, Fred Astaire is timeless. Think what that man can do with his body. ” Which shocked them all into utter silence.

          5. What cured me of age-ism, besides getting old, was Patrick Stewart. He’s in his seventies and still yowsa. I think a lot of it is that he’s just having such a good time. Plus his intelligence and his politics. And that friendship with Ian McKellan. He just married somebody in her late thirties; lucky woman.

          6. I’m fascinated with older women in relationships. Mary Tyler Moore was quite a bit older than her last husband. I’m also very curious about France’s Macron and his wife, although my sister is convinced that something started when he was too young and it bothers her. She spent many years as a prosecutor in abuse and neglect cases, and this is a “thing” for her, which she acknowledges.
            I wasn’t there and don’t care to look beyond their statements on the relationship (there’s too much going on in life at the moment anyway) but he really does seem to be very enamored of her.

          7. They met when she was his teacher, but I don’t think they met again until he was 22? I didn’t get the impression that there was anything happening while he was in school, aside from his crush.

          8. My library used to have a VHS copy of Ask Any Girl, and I checked it out a couple times. It’s been about 10 years, but I remember it being funny. Of course, with those actors I was almost guaranteed to enjoy it. David Niven is always worth watching. If I remember right, Rod Taylor played one of the obnoxious men who harassed MacLaine and was quite good at being slimy. I was probably old enough by then to notice if it was horribly sexist, so I don’t think it was that bad. If anyone still has a working VCR and is willing to overpay a little, you can probably find one of the old tapes on EBay or Amazon.

          9. Rod Taylor was supposed to be a creep; he’s the one David Niven punches out at the end.
            Gig Young, the brother, was just gormless.

  31. This is a fascinating discussion. I don’t even like folks who push cigarettes on people, and I think Sasha and others are right that the suspension of disbelief necessary for a relationship to develop between the cop and the drug dealer would be impossible. But everyone is right about needing a protagonist who pulls the reader in.

    As a former teacher and as someone who once paid to join a writing class, the original encounter between Jenny and the student sounds like it had an appropriate outcome. The student wanted something other than Jenny’s style. That’s it.

    I couldn’t get the hang of the writing class — I think partly because I don’t take criticism well, but also because something about me put off the teacher and two of the other students. Choosing to drop the course was a sign of strength on my part. (I pride myself on not giving up.)

    (Of course, I still have nightmares about the whoppers I made with my students when I taught.)

    But good things happen — last night I bumped into a student from 11 years ago. He was so full of memories and compliments that I’m still glowing. Real life doesn’t have endings.

  32. In reply to Jessie, because I don’t think this’ll nest.

    -Hamster Elevator is and Alvin and the Chipmunks tribute band. 😀

  33. I’ve judged unpublished contests over the years, and it’s the hardest thing when all I want to say is, “I hate your heroine.” Which you’re not supposed to do when judging a contest. So I have to write around that by suggesting the writer consider her character’s motivation (I find myself recommending Deb Dixon’s GMC so much that Deb should be giving me royalties :-)) or trying to raise story questions.

    And I’ve just realized as I type this that I’m probably a little more forgiving of a flawed hero. Ugh. Maybe I’ve been socialized to expect that the love of a good woman will redeem him? Hmm, another opportunity to explore my biases.

  34. Lots of interesting comments here. First, I am much happier with anti-heroes on screen than in books, and I suspect it is because there is so much ‘splaining to be done which can be done way more economically visually than in print. I was a huge fan of both Breaking Bad and The Wire in which protagonists either descended into evil or were bad from the outset. The context is key. In BB, one of the key elements in Walter White’s choices is his firm belief that he will be dead before long because he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, plus a whole tranche of backstory in which it is clear that he was shafted by his previous partner in a software business that was then sold but without Walter being able to profit by it and he is acutely aware of the impact on his family which desperately needs money – Walter Jr has cerebral palsy and his wife is pregnant at the start of the series. As the series flows, Walter emerges from being backed into a corner and powerless to being deeply corrupted by his last-ditch attempts to save his family from penury and relishing the power and opportunities his skills have now earned him. The premise is much more nuanced and complex than just simply a man discovering his dark side, and that is why the series is massively compelling.

    However, all too often in novels, anti-heroic figures in romance (all those bad-boy heroes) seem to have cookie cutter Psych 101 motivations for their bad-boyness and that totally takes the pleasure out of the situation for me. E.g. The slutty mother or the bullying father. Or the characters are just plain nasty, like Artemis Fowl who had in the two books I managed to read absolutely no redeeming features that I could see. In the best TV – Sopranos, BB, Gomorra, populated by anti-heroes, the evil that overtakes the characters is partly caused by external unintended consequences and the excessive responses of the characters themselves when pressured. And my heavens, they do pay.

    Meanwhile, I am really struggling to identify anti-heroic characters in books that I really like, apart from Dorothy Dunnett’s protagonists, Niccolo and Francis Crawford, both of whom are also nuanced and of course FC ends up being very heroic.

    1. See, I loved Artemis Fowl. But I probably wouldn’t pick it up now. I was definitely more adventurous in my reading as a kid, when I was reading to explore the world, instead of recharge from it.

      1. So well put! I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve been thinking I should read this and see that, but for now what I required is -re-charging.

  35. Jane Eyre? I find her sympathetic, but the rewrites and movie versions insist on making her nice and pretty. She is neither.

  36. Linda Howard has written some pretty hard protagonists, male and female.

    I think there’s an assassin in Kiss Me While I Sleep who goes rogue after her best friends and their daughter are murdered. In a book title I can’t remember, there was a character named Niema who made a deal with an arms dealer to get his child a transplant so that he would give them information.

    1. I really like how the protagonist in Kiss Me While I Sleep recognizes that her reactions do not fit in the bounds of ‘normal’ society.

  37. Each of us are capable of anything, always, both for good and harm. That is the deepest self awareness. Each moment we choose.
    Each person, each character, can learn the harm the choices do and choose to become a whole and loving person. That is the root of hope in romance. Being able to heal and learning to be a person who chooses what is right even when it is difficult.
    There is a lot of potential for that in a story like that. And it is a story that most of us relate to in one way or another, that of learning to recognize our own need to want what is right and how that brings healing.

    Dear dear fantastic Jenny,
    Please send your guilt to the dogs where it belongs. You deserve better for yourself. It has held you back too long. Each of us make choices and must accept the consequences. Guilt causes us to keep making the same harmful choices, even if it only seems to be ourselves its harming.
    Much love, a longtime fan and reader

    1. Smooch. Guilt is my middle name. It probably keeps me from being even more of a horrible person than I already am.

  38. My number one reason for putting down a book and not picking it back up is an unsympathetic protagonist. If I hate all the characters in a book or movie or show, that’s a killer for me.

    1. Mine is “nothing is happening.” If all I’m getting is description and back story, I’m out of there.

    2. This is what happened for me with American Hustle. Those were all very terrible people as far as I was concerned and I was glad when it was done.

  39. (Sorry for breaking the thread — since there are no headings here it can take me fifteen minutes or more to find a recent reply, because I have to sort through every response left here to find anything) I still feel there’s a third Temptation story there, one involving their dad meeting a woman who takes his feet out from under him. As to the student that started all this, I learned back when I was running the digital music lab at a local community college that not every student is going to connect with every instructor, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. The best tactic is to let them go on to the next teacher, and it’s not about your abilities or the student’s either. I can accept that the protagonist as outlined isn’t going to work in a “cozy” romance story, and it’ll take some heavy skill to make that protagonist work. And though “opposites attract” is a trope (some would say a cliché) of most relationship focused tales, romantic or otherwise, there’s a limit and I can understand the need for you, as the instructor, to have more from the student as to how she was going to overcome such a gulf of values. What you asked isn’t beyond the range of what an editor would ask when presented with the same premise, and until the rise of self-publishing as a common vector instead of a last resort almost all published stories had to pass through at least one editor. Someone who folds at the first questions about the premise is going to have a rough time facing editors and readers.
    Also note that there’s a segment of the population who would consider Nick to be beyond any connection because of his job. Such folks tend not to read PR stories, focusing on more mainstream tales, but there’s probably someone who is going to either refuse to or be unable to connect with anyone other than the protagonist of a typical Cozy Romance.

    1. Yep, I’ve already faced that about Nick. But if that trips them up, the rest of the story would make them insane, so it’s probably good they put the book down up front.

      I don’t really want to read about Davy and Sophie’s dad, he was fun as a supporting character but I’d have strangled him early as a protagonist, but I have a vague plan of Nadine and I always thought Dillie had potential.

      1. See, for me, the big theme is redemption, which is why the two books resonate with me so much. There’s no way “her royal hindness” is going to find it, so their dad is the other likely choice. It’d take something like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to do it, but I think it’d be fun to watch him as everything spins out of control and his current scheme gets more and more fouled up as he starts to realize that he doesn’t care if it goes pear shaped as long as he’s got her. Plus we’re lacking in good well written stories about older folks finding love — sort of the whole it’s never too late to find the one who changes everything.
        Now, of course, if he was impersonating a cop, and the female lead is a drug dealer who is trying everything she can to get out of town…

        1. Dempsey dad already had a wonderful woman in the mother, so I’m not so interested in him anymore.
          One of my favorite Cruise notions is “practice swings”, so yes, a Dollie story would be great. After we get Alice’, please. ?

        2. I think that past a certain age, redemption gets a lot less likely. But that may just be my conception of Michael; he LIKES who he is, he’s very comfortable with his world view. He loves his kids so the fact that he scams them is irrelevant since he helps them, too. I know people like that. They’re charming but you do not leave them alone with your wallet or trust them when they look you straight in the eye and tell you something that sounds so true . . . people like that do not change because they see no reason to, and any reasons that shows up will be dismissed. It’s like addiction, and anybody who’s ever tried to save an addict will tell you that that’s a one-way ticket to hell.

          1. I have a friend with a parent like that, parts of Faking it hit them right in the childhood…

          2. I don’t think I was supposed to like her, but I was glad the Clea found someone with enough money, I hope she stayed with him. I really like the moment when she laid it out for Davey, and made clear he didn’t pay enough attention to anything other than her looks to understand their relationship.

          3. I loved Clea. She was completely selfish, but she didn’t pretend to be anything else. I realized later she’s my Cordelia. Without Cordelia’s redemption.

  40. I just received a comment on this blog in my email, but I can’t find the comment here.

    The writer mentioned how much she disliked Rochester in the novel Jane Eyre, citing his cruel treatment of his first wife. The writer also said that she’d been assigned Wide Sargasso Sea after reading Jane Eyre which did nothing to alter her opinion of Rochester.

    Two thoughts. First, neither Rochester nor Jane is attractive or nice. Ultimately, Rochester spins out of control as Jane keeps her moral center. Rochester loses his home, his fortune, his hand, and his eyesight, becoming entirely reliant on Jane. So, while he has been vile to Bertha, he pays for his sins. That will never make someone who dislikes him change her mind, but at least he doesn’t get away with his misdeeds. And he atones psychologically and spiritually.

    Second, a distinguished British professor of 19th century literature, whose scholarship has focussed on Jane Eyre, admitted that her view of Bronte’s book was forever altered by Wide Sargasso Sea.

    1. I have to butt in. Have to. Because I love Jane. Her speech about being Rochester’s equal still gives me goose bumps. She put integrity over ‘true love’ which is uncommon and she made something of herself from nothing.

      And also, historically speaking, Rochester was kind to his first wife. The ‘treatments’ and care for people housed in insane asylums in the mid to late 1800s were incredibly inhumane. I think keeping her at home was the best he could think of to do.

      1. I read JE in the very early grades of high school and I remember liking it. This whole discussion has me fascinated and wanting to re-read it. Back then I read to get to the ending but didn’t think too deeply on the story. ?

      2. Yes, but the reason he thought she was insane was because she wasn’t Victorian-proper. She was too passionate about things, she wasn’t a lady. He married her in the Caribbean because she was so passionate and warm then when he wanted a wife, he dragged her back to cold old England and expected her to put on a corset and be cool. IMHO, he drove her to madness. Even the fact that she burns down the place is another example of her fire overwhelming him as he tries to put it out.

        And then of course, while he has her locked in the attic, he tries to marry somebody else. Yeah, I’d be annoyed, too.

        1. Yes, and yet I like him. I was annoyed when I read Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair (more annoyed because on a caper level it was fun to read; it wasn’t fun to ponder). Fforde removes the characters’ psychological changes so that his protagonist can supply the ending to Jane Eyre.

          Perhaps it’s the level of Rochester’s suffering that attracts me. He doesn’t know happiness (he’s quite aware of choosing evil) until he falls for Jane. Then he faces a will greater than his own and loses everything in finally trying to do something a teensy bit right for Bertha. Usually, the dastardly hero who becomes honorable for the love of a lady doesn’t have to atone for the all the bodies left behind.

          Of course, it’s a matter of taste, thank goodness.

          By the way, did folks like reading Jane Eyre and Pride & Prejudice in school? They weren’t in my curriculum. I’ve mentally separated books I read on my own from books I was assigned.

          1. I read them on my own. It wasn’t until college that I was assigned Withering Heights (that was my first read for that one). I don’t believe I read Eyre in college – just HS I think.

  41. How unsympathetic can a protagonist be — I’m still grieving over my loss of the Vorkosigan Saga after reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

    So, while Simon Illyan was working his butt off and Miles was risking his life repeatedly for the sake of the Great Aral, that supposedly great man was seducing one of his junior officers, avoiding telling his wife, and ultimately demanding that his subordinates go to extremes to cover for him.

    Cordelia is even more unsympathetic, excusing herself at one moment for her Betan heritage and at the next for her lack of confidence. She is the ultimate elitist, trivializing the concerns of the people she governs.

    Oh, I wish I had never read that book. And I’ve discarded the whole series, my appetite soured.

    I am all for standalones. I agree with Jenny’s arguments against series. If I’d noticed that Faking It and Welcome to Temptation were related, they would have been the last Crusie’s I read. (I love both.) Also, I know that publishers want series.

    I keep thinking I’m over my grief about the Vorkosiverse, then it bubbles up again.

    1. They’re not really a series, either. They interlock, but you can read Faking It without WTT and vice versa. They’re standalones whose characters overlap a little.

    2. I didn’t like Gentleman Jole either but for the opposite reasons, I think. I simply didn’t believe it, so it didn’t ruin the series for me.

      It reads as though she is trying to put together two opposing and inconsistent plot lines. On the one hand, she likes this idea of stuff going on that Miles simply never notices, largely because he is so self-absorbed, and then finally Cordelia and Oliver make him confront his parents as people and not just parents. Which is a perfectly workable idea in itself, but totally inconsistent with the opposite idea that Cordelia starts a new life and a new love with Oliver. You can’t say that they were two parts of a three way marriage and then have them ignore eachother for three years and then start a new relationship. Plus, the Cordelia we see in the rest of the books, if she was in a three way marriage, would simply insist that Oliver was part of the family and while they might want to be discreet about it, he absolutely should be treated as family when he was around and included in holidays and so forth.

      I think she should either have written a book about Miles’ dealing with his parents being adults and doing things he knew nothing about, or a book about Cordelia making a new life as a widow.

      As far as being disillusioned about Aral–FWIW, I don’t think he is supposed to have hidden anything from Cordelia–she had talked with him in theory about having a male male relationship and then she was gone visiting his mom. And Miles and Simon are working for Gregor, not Aral–at most Miles is trying to live up to Aral but its not Aral’s expectations that Mile is living up to, its his own. I agree, its a problem that he seduced a subordinate–but then, I find the whole plot unconvincing so I just don’t believe it, really.

      1. I actually enjoyed Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen quite a bit, myself. Definitely not up there with, say, Memory or A Civil Campaign, but fun and sweet. (And more satisfying than Cryoburn, which was COMPLETELY overshadowed by that last page and epilogue.) I thought it was reasonable that Cordelia and Oliver, as two individuals basically orbiting around Aral (a V rather than a triad), would consider that part of the relationship in the past once he’s gone, and only after they’ve had time to grieve, try to reconnect and find that there can be something of their own between besides the man they both loved.

        As for the more problematic aspects of the romance — and it is admittedly problematic to have a three-way affair with your subordinate, no matter how noble your intentions and how willing the subordinate and spouse….. when you think about it, Aral’s theme from the very start has been the tension between the Great Man he is famous as (whether as the Hero of Barrayar or the Butcher of Komarr– pure good and pure evil are both idealized versions of him) and the complex, complicated, imperfect mess of a human being he is underneath. When you consider the soul-crushing things he did or allowed to happen in Shards of Honor and his backstory, the relationship with Oliver is…. maybe not exactly healthy, but three people trying to do their best by each other in an imperfect universe.

        Elizabeth, I’m so sorry it soured the series for you, it’s always awful when that happens, and to Bujold at that. And I know that arguments that It’s Not Like That At All or There’s A Reason For It are just aggravating and never convince anybody, so I hope this hasn’t come across as that. But I’m curious now: when Gentleman Jole disillusioned you, was it too much in its own right, or were you comparing it to what he’d done in the past and finding it worse, or just the final straw? If the latter, was it worse BECAUSE the other deeds were far in the past and he should be better by now, or because circumstances were more extenuating in the past, or…? (Feel free to tell me to buzz off if I’m just poking the wound….)

    3. I’m going to be upfront and say I liked Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. If I had a complaint, it would be not enough intergalactic intrigue. That Plascrete should have had an interesting plot line of its own.

      But . . . you have to admit that seen from certain angles, the series has been populated with horrible characters right from the beginning. Aral is a murdering, ruthless military man who puts duty over human life, right from the beginning. Cordelia is a super-nerd with social awkwardness problems who tends to be a very loose cannon indeed, endangering many lives and even more careers. (Dr. Mehta was probably never the same after that psychiatric interview.)

      I love the characters to bits, but they are all deeply flawed. I ignore a lot of those flaws, but that’s me. There are probably different series where I would feel the flaws got in the way of the story-telling, instead of propelling the story. For example, I stopped watching The Mentalist the first time they “caught” the bad guy. It was getting too bloody for my taste (always was on the edge for me), and I thought it was a great ending for me. I had no interest in going on.

      I’m sorry you lost the Vorkosigan series. You can’t tell your heart to accept what it doesn’t want to accept. I really am happy for Bujold in that she’s finding courage to write about what she really, really wants to write about, instead of skating around certain issues. Retirement suits her, in my opinion, because it frees her to play around with those alternate-love scenarios, like in the Penric novels.

    4. I agree with you. I think Cordelia’s reaction is in keeping with the series but Aral’s is just wrong.

      Cordelia gives the answer when the slimy guy tells her in Barrayar that Aral’s bisexual and she says, now he’s monogamous. I also don’t think that given all the intrigue around Gregor that Aral would have risked the scandal. Once Gregor was grown and Aral & Cordelia were off on the other planet? Yes, then I can buy it. But set up as she did it?

      No. It’s just not him. I found it hard to believe he’d cheat on her in any circumstances, but the circumstances Bujold set up completely lost me. I followed Aral & Cordelia through every book and that isn’t him.

  42. I really very much appreciate Debbie, Guimi, Micki, and Jenny’s kind responses. My problems with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen stemmed from the fact that I’d assumed that the Vorkosiverse was built on Aral and Cordelia’s romantic connection and that what followed was the arc of their pioneer-like efforts. I thought they were creating a new connection between Barrayar with universe, and subsequent stories tied in Jackson’s Whole, Sergyar, Beta, and all sorts of outlying planets. No one else’s story could live up to Aral and Cordelia’s.

    Instead, GJ&theRQ seemed too common, as did the relationships. The world wasn’t interesting — it was here and now. Neither Aral’s greatness nor his failure belong in a realistic world. Cordelia was a truly awful political leader (I was involved in a lot of protesting against a natural gas pipeline in my area at the time — Cordelia would have blown me off.) I guess the distance that sci-fi allows one — in order to look broadly at issues — had disappeared, and I felt exposed for having formerly adored these characters.

    Anyway, I think all of this shows how divorced I am from what Bujold is really interested in, as you, my friends, have said. The only Penric novella I’ve liked is Penric and the Shaman, which I absolutely love. Yet that is because it fulfills the needs left by the Hallowed Hunt and seems to have the old Bujold in its details. And I’m working at growing up, too — I don’t know why I felt so devastated when Bujold produced GJ&theRQ. I think it’s a sign that I need to find other satisfactions, and I’m having fun pursuing that.

    1. Because it betrayed a character you loved when he was no longer there to defend himself.

  43. Bujold’s books are so rich that we can all be focused on different things. She has said that she wanted to show what happened to someone with severe disabilities in a very physical militaristic society.

    I’m sorry you lost books you loved though. That’s painful. I used to love the Little House books and then as a grownup I realized that they were part of our cultural myth of independence instead of interdependence which is part of why people oppose things like a strong safety net (although there is more community in there than you realize in the later books) and I could never look at them the same way.

    1. I still like the Little House stories and I love the myth of independence, but when I re-read them as an adult, I really thought Pa was an asshole for dragging his family out into these conditions because he thought the neighbors were getting too close. I suppose Ma really should share in some of the responsibility, too. She may have been economically dependent upon Pa, but was moving back home or living as a widow really not an option? Compared to moving into a wild war zone with little access to resources?

      My great-grandparents moved to Nebraska shortly after that time period, and endured a lot — but they were part of a community, and they must have brought a little money from Germany, because they did all right.

  44. Well, the joke to the kids is the neighbors were getting too close but the truth is after the Civil War, people keep moving trying to get ahead economically. The settled land isn’t as fruitful as the virgin prairie.

  45. I have not read all the comments so I may be repeating here, but… If the protagonist has questionable morals, in a romance the reveal of that fact has to be delayed until the reader already has a strong connection to the character, AND the correction of that moral fault has to be included in the story arc. Above all, especially in romance, the protagonist must be likable. IMHO, drug pushers and bullies (the heroine in that story was both) are not likeable, especially when they are behaving badly for selfish reasons.

    1. I think the real consideration here is how much the reader trusts the writer. If Jenny started a book with a character who was torturing small children I’d be more willing to see where she was going with this than if Joyce Carol Oates was writing the story. This is because Jenny doesn’t like to screw over her protagonists like Joyce seems to. I know people who devour formulaic romances, but that’s not me — I need some difference in what I’m reading and an enjoyable read has to be something more than a stock plot with some random detail tables. Give me something different, don’t telegraph the plot so I can get s surprise from time to time, (This is my biggest complaint with Jane Eyre) and give me interesting characters who make me want to find out what happens to them. I don’t have to like them, but they can’t be featureless or stereotypical. I’ll give a write a lot of leeway if they can meet these criteria. Oh, and one more thing — don’t let the good guys get beaten by the bad guys over and over again and get rewarded for it.

      1. I’m not sure I could pull off a torturer of small children. It would depend on the torture and the child. Like saying, “No you can’t have candy” to a five-year-old who hurt a dog. I could do that. Little bastard.

        I’m reading Making Money and trying to figure out why it wasn’t as good as Going Postal, and I think part of it is that the bad guys are so stupid. Reacher Gilt from GP was a smart man; the Lavishes are just dumb and greedy. There are other problems, but that’s the main one. No small children are tortured.

  46. It’s about The Contract. This story was framed as a Romance, so the contract on offer was that our drug dealer and our cop would live Happily Ever After. That’s not a contract Jenny was willing to sign, and her gut told her (for better or for worse) that other readers of Romance wouldn’t sign, either.

    I propose that the student over-reacted because this was her Mary Sue; she was writing her own Happily Ever After, and Jenny saying the character wasn’t fit for Romance meant that *the author* didn’t deserve an HEA.

    Motivations aside, Jenny, I agree that you were out of line in critiquing the heroine directly. Not because she took it personally, but because you believe your job as a teacher is to critique form, not content (that’s the contract you made with yourself and your students) and you didn’t just critique, you objected in rigid terms. It also sounds like you regret the possibility that you ham-strung an otherwise promising writer. But from what you said, this young woman very likely had the grit to follow her dreams despite one unpalatable critique. If she didn’t go on writing, I promise that it was not you alone who stopped her.

    You have clearly learned to critique form not content, and from other things you’ve said, you know that: one, you can’t save everyone; and two, it’s unhealthy to take responsibility for things you can’t control. I think you’ve learned what you can from the incident; you can let it go, now.

  47. This is way out of order –I can’t figure out how to post it after Jenny’s comment about Macron–but in fact something more than a crush must have been going on, even if it wasn’t sexual, because his parents said to her when he was 17 that it was ok for her but if they were together he would miss out on his whole life, they couldn’t have kids–and then sent him away to boarding school to separate them. So that implies a certain level of mutuality.

    I’m not sure at what age this goes from creepy predatory to great love affair. Sherry Thomas’ one contemporary has a similar issue — the hero has a relationship that starts in his teens with a much older woman photographer who also uses him as a model. (She isn’t the heroine–the book plot revolves in part about his struggle to rebuild his relationship with his parents years after that relationship ended.) It’s a good book, and it made me think about male artists and their teen models more deeply, and I recommend it–but the hero there goes after this older woman quite deliberately and still there is a choice on her part.
    And again, role reversal is illuminating here.

    I also have to ask you Jenny–do you really think you would have been doing your job if you didn’t raise this issue or would you have felt guilty for letting her invest time and talent and energy in a book you were sure wouldn’t seek, and failing to teach her about story arcs and the different structures for different genres. You never told her she shouldn’t write this character or story–you told her it didn’t fit the romance genre.

    1. I think it’s never my job to critique content.
      I think I could have talked about audience and expectation without saying, “This woman is unsympathetic because she’s a predator.” I stated my opinion as fact, and then instead of discussing craft, I discussed publication, as in “This won’t get published as a romance,” which was incredibly hypocritical of me since I’ve broken all kinds of rules about what romance heroines can and can’t do, mostly because I wasn’t aware they existed.
      I should have stuck to craft and never discussed the morality of her content.


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