If I Exorcise My Devils Then My Angels Will Leave Too

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.

  1. Introduce a main character in a situation where she or he exhibits an unlikeable trait, such as cowardice or unreasoning anger.
  2. Have several situations during the course of the story where this negative trait causes problems for the character.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Flashback to #3, with a voiceover of the significant dialogue.
  6. The character completely changes established behavioral patterns and demonstrates the opposite trait (say, courage or calm rationality).
  7. 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.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to If I Exorcise My Devils Then My Angels Will Leave Too

  1. Paul says:

    To be fair to Dickens, Scrooge did have a Damascene conversion through a form of holy intervention.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That story always bothered me–it seems more like supernatural extortion than a conversion. I mean, Scrooge was basically threatened to make him behave. I wonder how long it lasted–I expect that he was back to his old self by Valentine’s Day.

  2. justinmtarquin says:

    I think a good character-arc story can be done (though I don’t fave an example in mind). The keys would be, first, the character has to have some particular likable quality that the reader sees from the beginning, that lets the reader identify with the protagonist as a good guy with a flaw. (Marty McFly in my view was kind of a jerk all around, and his susceptibility to the chicken taunt was the least of his problems.) second, the character’s growth should have a basis in his likable qualities, so that the story isn’t a flip-flop into a different personality but an integral character sorting out what are his deepest principles and disciplining himself to live by them.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I was planning on writing a followup to this where I talk about how to use character growth in a story, and you just hit my main points. So maybe I won’t have to write it now.

      • justinmtarquin says:

        You’ve got me thinking about it now, though, and I thought of an example of a good character arc: Huckleberry Finn. And that points to another story-design strategy: show that the character flaw isn’t just the protagonist’s, but is widespread in his society; or show some other relatable reason behind his flaw.

  3. Pingback: He Came Home From The War With A Party In His Head | mishaburnett

  4. Prince LaQroix says:

    I pretty much agree with you. But I think this is important mostly for the protagonist. If you have a couple of side characters who start out unlikable and slowly change over over a few novels (within reason), I’ll buy that as well. Obviously, the protagonist has to be likable, but I think side characters have some wiggle room.

  5. Joseph Dooley says:

    Now that you mention it, the BTTF sequels have a tacked on arc for Marty. Being called yellow gets him in a duel with Mad Dog Tannen, which he wins. He’s never dealt a defeat that would teach him to not be a hothead. The culmination of this nonexistent arc is then to… floor it in reverse at a red light? Always seemed off to me.

    However, Doc Brown’s arc of turning against time travel and wanting to destroy the DeLorean is well told and believable. As a man of science he looks at the evidence and sees the repeated harm time travel causes. The very end of the third movie then reverses all that by having him build a flying time traveling train. Weird.

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