Thursday, September 01, 2011

Creating Sympathetic Protagonists

The latest issue of RWR (the membership magazine for Romance Writers of America) includes an article called "The Unsympathetic Protagonist," about techniques for avoiding this pitfall by making flawed characters sympathetic. Here are a few methods among the ten listed by the article's author, Janice Hussein: "Timing is key"—supply details to make the reader like and sympathize with the protagonist before showing him or her doing something that could turn the reader against the character. (This sounds like the "Save the Cat" principle Jacqueline often mentions.) Include reprehensible characters to make the protagonist look attractive by contrast. Make the antagonist less likable in order to encourage the reader to like the protagonist more. Show that the character is potentially redeemable. Include events in the character's background when he or she has been hurt or wronged.

One good example might be Red from Stephen King's RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. (Hussein's article refers to the film SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION—she apparently hasn't read the novella—but focuses on Andy, the protagonist but not a good example for this topic. It's clear by midway in the movie, if not earlier, that Andy did NOT murder his wife, yet this author somehow got the impression he did. The whole point of his character is that he's a wrongfully convicted man struggling to keep his dignity and integrity, totally different from the "unsympathetic protagonist" trope.) The narrator, Red, unlike Andy, IS guilty of having murdered his wife, as a bitter young man. When we meet him in the story, decades later, he regrets his youthful crime and has grown into an admirable person (as convicted felons go). Moreover, he is surrounded by characters far worse than himself, and he shows his good qualities by befriending Andy before the reader finds out the details of Red's crime.

Last week I re-watched GONE WITH THE WIND and started thinking about Scarlett O'Hara (in the novel, which I've read multiple times) in relation to this advice about making a potentially unlikable protagonist sympathetic. Although Scarlett is the book's protagonist, author Margaret Mitchell intended saintly Melanie as the story's true heroine, the ideal Southern woman. Mitchell's protagonist, on the other hand, is definitely not likable. Scarlett knows how to make herself irresistible to most men, but no woman without Melanie's compassionate view of human nature would want her for a friend. Not only is she manipulative, selfish, and greedy, she combines self-centeredness with an almost total lack of self-awareness. Until her epiphany after Melanie's death, on the rare occasions when guilt or self-doubts intrude into her mind Scarlett puts them off with, "I'll think about that tomorrow." Yet millions of readers have sympathized with and rooted for her.

As far as sympathetic characters go, Mitchell doesn't give us much to work with in Scarlett. When we first meet her, she's laughing off the possibility of war and instead anticipating a party where she expects to be the center of attention. At the barbecue she heartlessly flirts with multiple men, including naively vulnerable Charles Hamilton, throws herself at Ashley Wilkes and then slaps him, gets into a violent argument with Rhett Butler, and agrees to marry poor Charles out of spite at Ashley's rejection. She doesn't get her "Save the Cat" moment until much later in the novel, when she stays in besieged Atlanta to take care of pregnant, bedridden Melanie. The only hint of a redeemable quality in Scarlett early in the story is the fact that she aspires to be like her refined, gracious, generous mother, Ellen. We don't see Scarlett taking any action to fulfill this desire, though; whenever it conflicts with her craving for male attention or material security (often), she puts it off until "tomorrow." She does, however, have bad experiences that induce us to sympathize with her. Despite her behavior toward Ashley, whom everybody else including Ashley himself knows she wouldn't be happy with, we can't help feeling sorry for her when he crushes her hopes. And of course we can't help rooting for her to recover from the devastation caused by the war. We do see thoroughly unlikable characters brought onstage as foils to make her more appealing, such as the Yankee soldier who invades Tara and the "riffraff" who attack her when she drives her buggy through the bad part of town alone. Scarlett displays admirable qualities in defending herself against these attackers with a fiery spirit. As for unlikable antagonists, the first half of the novel paints a negative picture, to the point of caricature, of all the Yankees we meet. Among other techniques mentioned in Hussein's article beyond those I mentioned earlier, Scarlett is shown as fascinating to the opposite sex, and she does "intriguing" things such as agreeing to dance with Rhett at the charity ball in defiance of convention even though she's supposed to be in mourning for her late husband, Charles. Her admirable traits of determination and perseverance show forth after the fall of Atlanta, when she works "like a field hand" to save her beloved home, Tara, and keep her family from starving. These goals enable the reader to keep sympathizing with her even when she tries to trick Rhett into lending her money for Tara's taxes, traps Frank Kennedy, her sister's beau, into marriage, and later exploits convict labor in her lumber mill. At this late point in the story, after Frank's violent death, she shows her potentially redeemable side by remorse over her indirect role in his killing and fear that she'll go to Hell for it.

Still, Mitchell pulls off an impressive tour de force by keeping us interested in Scarlett as the protagonist long enough to recognize her admirable traits, given the mostly negative way she is portrayed early in the book. Is this a risky strategy of which most writers should be told, "Don't try this at home?"

1 comment:

  1. This post was extremely interesting to me. I've had several protagonists that people have told me they don't "like", but I see here there are other ways to deal with that situation. I'm all for Save the Cat moments. You can't make the protagonist totally unlikeable, of course, or they might as well be the antagonist. Even anti-heroes are at heart likable. Thanks so much for giving me food for thought.