|Sarah's cover story from Melissa Walker|
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
Last August, editor Cheryl Klein shared her thoughts on likeability and protagonists. She wrote, “In the children's and YA world, we can sometimes be so anxious that children or teenagers will like reading or like one particular book that we make likeability a requirement, forgetting that most children and young adults are born with a taste for honesty before a taste for sweetness....”
She suggested that unlikeability is a tool in the writer’s toolbox. Not two weeks later, Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler White in Breaking Bad wrote about the vitriolic responses to her morally compromised character.
Right away, I heard from some of my writers.com students. We love talking about things like this, especially since they knew my new novel, Believe (Carolrhoda Lab, 2013), featured an unlikeable protagonist. They wanted to know: what actually makes a character unlikeable? When creating an unlikeable protagonist, are there unique tools or obligations that must be accessed and considered—or is it is no different than creating an appealing character? Can a character be too unlikeable? Or are unlikeable protagonists simply characters with flaws we can forgive? Does the writer of YA fiction have a particular responsibility to offer hope?
Many writers have discussed these questions already. I have notebooks full of advice to prove it! And most of them urge us to keep the characters likeable and appealing—to make sure they are not entirely loathsome.
It’s not bad advice. A likeable protagonist draws the reader in. We cheer for a likeable character to succeed. As Cheryl remarked, some level of likeability is often the key to selling a story. There are times when I love books like this. I love reading stories where the human spirit triumphs.
But just like Cheryl, that’s not all I want to read. Most of the time, I prefer “different” over “beautiful.” I want to read stories that offer me something much less safe and perhaps, a little more real or edgy with lots of moral ambiguity. As a reader, I enjoy entering the world of someone who in real life I would despise, despicable characters, characters that are not all that nice, complete with endings that leave me more unnerved than content.
Books like Tenderness by Robert Cormier (Delacorte, 1997), The Rag and Bone Shop, also by Cormer (Delacorte, 2001), Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (Roaring Brook, 2002), The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp (Knopf, 2008), Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (St. Martin's, 2013), Family by Micol Ostow (Egmont, 2011), and How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2011).
These books challenge my view of the world and my comfort zone. They make me squirm. Best of all, they make me think. They stay with me.
That’s what I set out to do when I wrote Believe.
From the beginning, I knew Believe was not going to be an easy story to write. Its themes, faith and fame, are as volatile as the character I envisioned. As I sat in my director’s chair, I envisioned how a girl would live her life under the spotlight, even though she had not accomplished anything.
After reading about a number of real life sole survivors, I decided to make my character the survivor of a suicide bombing. I knew this was sticky territory, but the intersection of faith and fame interested me. It troubled me. I decided I might as well jump all the way in.
Let’s just say: my first readers begged me to make Janine nicer. Smarter. Kinder to her friends. The problem was: the nicer she was, the less tension she created and the less my themes mattered.
Worse, she became less authentic. Her story unraveled. I think this is how you know you have to take the leap and let a protagonist be unlikeable. Nice Janine’s story became didactic. Nice Janine’s story was boring. This book only made sense if she was difficult, if she was struggling, if she wasn’t worried about teaching anyone anything. Like a lot of real life celebrities, she attracted scorn.
That said, I don’t think Janine’s story would ever have found its way into print if it hadn’t been for the support of my editor, Andrew Karre.
From the moment he read this story, he understood Janine. He allowed me to take chances with likeablity—to bend the rules. He pushed me to create a character that might not be likeable but was more interesting and authentic.
With his support and inspiration, I challenged myself to write about a character with lots of real rough edges, a famous girl who lived in our world right now: a world of rubberneckers. In front of the public eye, she is resentful that God watched her suffer. She is selfish. She is often shallow. And yet, she is admired. She is a survivor. She has goals. Friends. Beliefs of her own.
In this book, I answered my questions: what if a girl who was famous for nothing suddenly thought she had healing powers? What might happen to a girl like that? What if everyone in her world wanted something from her? The result?
An honest, unlikeable character. The only problem? I’m still a writer who, like everyone else, would really like to be liked.
Today, many of us are preoccupied with our images and what others say about our work. We know that in today’s world—Janine’s world—we have access to what our readers think of our creative decisions. Here is the big problem: if we let it infect us too much, it will hurt our work.
It takes nerve to write unlikeable protagonists. You need to be brave to write this way, to risk polarizing readers. When you write a book with an unlikeable protagonist, you will face the criticism of readers who want to protect young minds, even though I have seen time and time again: young minds don’t need that. They are ready to read what they choose.
I hope readers will talk about Janine and our own role in the stories of people like her. (The great people at Lerner came up with an amazing discussion guide.)
When I wrote this story, discussion and conversation was what I hoped for. So it’s okay with me if readers don’t like her. I just hope that everyone who looks at this book will find her interesting and complicated. I hope they question her actions—and the trends in our world.
I hope her story gives readers something to talk about.
Here are the questions I ask to understand my characters, especially the protagonist.
They aren’t unique to unlikeable narrators. But without these questions, I could not have moved forward.
- What does your character want? Why? What is your character's controlling belief? What are her/his mottoes? How have they backfired?
- How does your character respond to stress? What is she/he obsessed with?
- What is your character's main occupation? Who is she/he? And most important, who is she/he in you?