I must like the protagonist

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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JANUARY QUESTION: Being a writer, when you’re reading someone else’s work, what stops you from finishing a book/throws you out of the story/frustrates you the most about other people’s books?

MY ANSWER: the crucial aspect of fiction for me is the characters. If I dislike the protagonist in a story I read, I rarely finish that story. One of the human traits that most often throws me out of a story is stupidity. I can’t abide stupid behavior (which for some reason frequently happens in romance novels). I also dislike alcoholics and drug addicts. I don’t want anything to do with them in real life and I don’t want to read about them in fiction. Otherwise, it is case by case.

Sometimes, a writer is wonderful, and I enjoy some of their books, but can’t read others because the leading character repulses me.

Writing textbooks and writing teachers all give the same advice: make your protagonist flawed. And young writers usually comply. They invent flaws for their protagonists. Such an approach to writing turns me off. I never do that in my own fiction. If my protagonists are flawed, their flaws grow organically. They are never invented or applied arbitrary. Truth to tell, I try to write my heroes as perfect as I can, totally likable, although they never come out that way. There is always something problematic in their psyche or their decision-making.

Most often, to achieve their goals, my heroes lie. Their lies don’t hurt anyone except the bad guys, but many people consider the ability (and sometimes inclination) to lie as a character flaw. I wonder if my predilection to solve my fictional problems with lies says something about me as an author and a person? Caveat: I don’t usually lie in my real life.

What about you? What character flaws creep up in your fiction repeatedly?

This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to I must like the protagonist

  1. I don’t have to like the protagonist – but they have to act in consistent ways. They also have to grow.
    It is poor editing which is most likely to make me put a book aside.

  2. Denise Covey says:

    Characterisation is my number one too. If I don’t care about them, why continue reading? In my early days of writing, a beta reader said he didn’t like my MC. I didn’t know this was important. Now you wouldn’t recognize the makeover and he’s much better now.

  3. Stupid characters like in most horror films?
    My main character tends to have the flaw of not wanting to deal with others or not knowing how to do it right.

  4. Flaws need to be natural, a result of how someone was raised or an event that happened to him/her, not just for the sake of the story.

  5. I think characters do have to have flaws but they have to be likeable characters we want to root for or the story won’t keep my interest.

  6. jlennidorner says:

    I try to stick with flaws that will work with the story, that will hold the character back in some way. Sometimes it’s something to overcome, but other times it’s just the way the character happens to be.

    I hope your New Year is going well. I only read and reviewed 23 books last year, but my goal for this year is 30. My other goals are to publish another fiction book in 2021, do the Blogging from A to Z Challenge in April, and increase the number of authors helped by Operation Awesome.

  7. I too have to like, or at least being able to understand the protagonist. If I can’t get why he (or she) does whatever he does, then I have a hard time reading the book. Also like EC said bad editing, inconsistencies. Like the protagonist hates beans in chapter one and then later on is seen eating beans with pleasure. Also typos, idiosyncratic language and (too many) spelling mistakes can put me off.
    Flaws in my characters usually mirrors my own. Lazyness, too great self confidence in minor matters leading to disasters, and yes, petty lies.
    My antagonists mostly are selfseeking bullies, liars on a bigger scale, and cheaters (like stealing, copying others’ work, not the 6th commandment) or chatterboxes. Hunger for power is also a vice for antagonists.

  8. patgarcia says:

    Hi and Happy New Year!
    I don’t have to like the protagonist, but I do like my main characters to have real down to earth flaws.
    All the best for 2021.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  9. emaginette says:

    Funny, I’ve always thought of the flaw as an emotional scar that needs to be dealt with. Like a ghost from the past that haunts them and stops them from achieving their goal. Alcoholism and drug abuse is more of a symptom to me.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  10. cleemckenzie says:

    Sometimes I like to dislike characters. Scrooge is a classic example. Without his cringeworthy heart at the center of Dicken’s story, he couldn’t have made his 180 degree change. I don’t like cookie cutter characters–good or bad ones. There has to be a reason for a character to behave they do, and it has to be plausible.
    Want to congratulate you on having your story in the next IWSG anthology. Hurray to a great start to 2021.

  11. Loni Townsend says:

    Makes me smile that your characters usually lie. My main character can’t lie. He made a careless promise once before he knew promises were binding for him, so he’s physically incapable of telling a lie. But, in his words, “Just because I can’t lie, doesn’t mean I have to be honest.”

  12. Erika Beebe says:

    I like strong heroes, who break down and get stronger by some major worldly event. I’m not a fan of swearing. My heroes are usually stoic on the outside and afraid of something else so deeply it forces them to fall to pieces in discovery of something greater.
    Happy New Year Olga!

  13. Jemi Fraser says:

    Great post. I prefer likeable people as well. My characters tend to be wounded by their pasts and lack the ability to trust themselves and others because of what has happened.

  14. Jenni says:

    I agree that trying to give your character flaws can result in unlikable characters. I’ve made this mistake myself. I think my most unlikable character (I don’t even like her myself) was because I was trying hard to make sure she had a character arc. I’ve found that letting the character arc grow organically works much better.
    And like you, it’s all about the characters for me. If someone is utterly self-centered with no redeeming qualities, I won’t stick with the book to find out if he or she will change.
    Congrats on getting your story in the anthology!

  15. Lidy says:

    I can deal with flawed characters. But a stupid one? Who doesn’t grow, doesn’t learn and keeps doing the same stupid things? All that does is increase the chance that I’ll drop the book. Couple of weeks ago I made the mistake of re-reading a book I knew I didn’t want to ever read again. And also gave less than 3 stars to. If you follow me on Goodreads, you’ll see that if I can’t rate a book 3 stars and up, I don’t give a rating. For me to click on 1-2 stars means it was that bad. I couldn’t quite remember the storyline (another red alert) so thought to give it a second chance. Before I finished chapter 1 began to regret it. I never rolled my eyes so much or so hard. But kept reading until the end. Lesson learned? Oh yes. Never again will I re-read that book again. Or any books I take the trouble to give a low rating.

  16. mlouisebarbourfundyblue says:

    Congratulations, Olga! You made the 2021 anthology. I can’t wait to read “Dark Matter: Artificial” from cover to cover. Wishing you a fun ride with the anthology and a happy and healthy new year!

  17. yvettecarol says:

    I agree with your points. I once tried to read a book with an unlikeable protagonist and I couldn’t get through the first two chapters! And the flaws need to come out slowly and in an organic way.

  18. Diane Burton says:

    I agree about stupid, I can’t get into a character too stupid to live.

  19. denizb33 says:

    Ooh, that’s a really good point. I’m always impressed by books that get us to empathise with an unsympathetic character!

  20. Very interesting and honest response Olga. Thanks. Lying to forward your characters’ agenda, ha, ha. I find that fun and original. Every character has flaws, they are only human. I agree that they should appear through the story not be pasted on artificially. Stupidity, yes. In French, I always say I am racist towards “ Les Cons” and usually my husband replies “ on est tous le con de quelqu’un” ! We are all perceived as the “as…..le.” of someone else. I suppose that’s true…. Wishing you a fruitful New Year. Take care. Hoping you will be joining the WEP again this year.

  21. Steph W says:

    My characters are usually either naïve and idealistic or they are selfish. (Often both). It is a lot like lying except they think they are right!

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