Recently I gave up on three books in rapid succession, and all for the same reason.
Unlikeable protagonists. More than that–protagonists who were introduced in such a way as to showcase their negative characteristics. And I see these books–and quite a few others that I have given up on over the years–as part of a modern literary trend of Personal Growth Character Arcs.
The first time I can recall noticing the trope was in the film Back To The Future II, back in 1989. If you will recall Marty McFly had a problem with being called “chicken”.
The younger McFly got into a fight because of it, and the elder McFly got fired because of it. And then at a critical moment towards the end of the film McFly gets called “chicken” again and he struggles with his anger for a moment and then backs down, saving the situation and demonstrating “personal growth”.
At the time (I would have been 26 in 1989) it struck me as contrived and annoying, and my opinion of that trope has not improved over time.
It does seem to have become a favorite of modern authors, however. In fact, it has become a formula that has become all but inescapable.
- Introduce a main character in a situation where she or he exhibits an unlikeable trait, such as cowardice or unreasoning anger.
- Have several situations during the course of the story where this negative trait causes problems for the character.
- Include one or more of the following scenes: A) The character agonizes over the trait in an internal monologue and despairs of ever changing, B) The character is lectured about the trait by either a companion or a mentor, and/or C) The character is taunted about the trait by an antagonist.
- Set a final climactic scene wherein the trait could cause the character to fail utterly in her or his mission, let innocents die, the world be destroyed, whatever.
- Flashback to #3, with a voiceover of the significant dialogue.
- The character completely changes established behavioral patterns and demonstrates the opposite trait (say, courage or calm rationality).
- The whole coffee shop applauds.
It’s not always this blatant, of course, I’m exaggerating for clarity (but not by much, particularly in terms of action movies that are going for “deep characterization”.)
I have multiple problems with this formula, some relating to story and some relating to realism.
To start with, if I don’t like the main character I probably won’t like the story. (There are exceptions where a very skilled author can tell a compelling story from the POV of an unlikable character–Albert Camus’ The Stranger and John Fowles’ The Collector, for example.) In general, though, if a main character is unpleasant at the beginning of the story I am not going to read far enough to see if she or he gets better later on.
It’s like sitting down to a big meal and finding the salad is wilted and the dressing rancid–I don’t care if you have a great dessert at the end of the meal, I ain’t eating here.
Next, it kills the dramatic tension because the ending is so predictable. It is possible to use formulas to tell an effective story, but not when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Can anyone give me an example of a story with a Personal Growth Story Arc where the main character didn’t overcome the fatal flaw in order to save the day?
Mostly, though, it’s unbelievable. People do change, yes, they change over time. Unless the story takes place over the course of ten years or more, it’s just not realistic to have a character undergoing substantial personality changes. And no, a single traumatic experience isn’t likely to “force them to grow”.
Furthermore, they don’t tend to change in the kind of drastic, dramatic fashion that the PGSA calls for. Cowards don’t suddenly become brave–instead, if they are going to grow into virtue, they become prudent. They learn to use their fear to motivate them into forethought and caution rather than blind panic.
I can buy a wrathful character channeling wrath into justice–but not mercy. I can buy a misor becoming a responsible investor, but not a philanthropist (and yes, Mr. Dickens, I am talking about A Christmas Carol here.)
I have more to say on this subject, but this has already grown long and I have more thinking on the subject to do–hopefully illuminated by thoughtful comments from my readers.