I’ve been asked quite often why I never went back to write more books in my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle. There are several reasons — I had other things I wanted to write, I had completed the story I set out to tell, I felt that I outgrew the worldbuilding — but probably the main reason is that I got bored with my lead characters, Jaryd and Alayna. They were both so . . . nice (and I say that with as much of a sneer as I can manage) that after a while I just wanted to slap them both. They were virtuous and kind, generous and wise beyond their years. Their faults were superficial, their magical powers the stuff of future legend. They were, in short, just the sort of people I would wind up hating in real life. By the end of the series, they seemed soulless; if I could have killed them off without angering my fans, I would have. And their deaths would have been bloody and painful.
One of the reasons many people do not like Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever books is that they cannot get passed the fact that ole Tom is such an utterly distasteful person. Within the first hundred pages or so of the first book of the first trilogy, he rapes a girl. Many readers can’t get beyond that single hateful act, and to be honest, I can’t really blame them. And even if a reader can continue reading, even if they can accept the narrative explanation for what Covenant does in that early scene, they are confronted again and again by his cowardice, his selfishness, his complete lack of all those noble qualities with which I over-imbued my lead characters in the LonTobyn books. He is, in short, a protagonist who is almost impossible to like, and for many readers that is too great an obstacle to overcome.
I have also heard people criticize Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel American Gods because the lead character, Shadow, is too bland, too unaffected by the horrors and tragedies occurring all around them. They will tell you that he is too stoic in the face of his wife’s death, too willing to go along with the schemes of the mysterious Mister Wednesday, too content to be drawn along by events rather than trying himself to shape them.
Where is the balance? Is there even one to be found in general terms, or is every hero a fresh reinvention and therefore open to experimentation, innovation, exploration? Are their qualities we can give a hero that would make him or her too evil to be sympathetic? Would you be willing to read a book in the point of view of a hero who is virtuous in most ways, but is an unrepentant racist? A misogynist? A terrorist? A serial killer? Most people will tell you that there are certain lines one can’t cross in today’s fiction market. The first one often mentioned — and certainly one that I could not possibly cross myself, either as writer or reader — is child molestation. In today’s market, there is no way to make a child molester into anything but a monster, the most abject villain. But of course, eventually someone is bound to try. Could you read such a book?
I’m Jewish. I would find it very difficult — perhaps impossible — to read a book in which the lead character is a Nazi, even if that person had host of laudable qualities. For me, that is a bridge too far. On the other hand, I have to admit that I DID get past that early scene in the first Covenant book. I read all six of the early books, and while they were disturbing, while I found Covenant to be a deeply frustrating character, to this day I cite those books as some of the most influential I ever read. It was while I was reading Donaldson that I made up my mind to become a professional writer. I also loved American Gods and liked Shadow as a POV character. On the other hand, I have come to hate Tolkien’s portrayal of Aragorn, for many of the same reasons why I grew sick of my own LonTobyn heroes. His virtue is, to me, overbearing, unreal. He is so *good* as to seem remote. I can’t relate to him.
Part of what makes Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen work as characters is that they are flawed. Harry is impetuous, undisciplined, a poor student. As he ages, he becomes surly and temperamental. I like that about him. Katniss, is selfish. She is sharp and hard, and not at all like the public persona she adopts during the Hunger Games; that tension is part of what makes the story work so well.
Lately I have been reading a couple of books — one a published novel written by a friend, another an unpublished manuscript also by a friend — that have made me think long and hard about what it is I look for in a hero, both as a writer and a reader. I like dark heroes. I enjoyed writing Tavis, the lead character in my Winds of the Forelands series, who was a spoiled brat, but eventually grew into the person I (and my readers) wanted him to be. I have loved writing Ethan Kaille, the hero of Thieftaker, who has been scarred, literally and figuratively, by a dark past. I don’t know, of course, how readers will respond to him. He does something in the middle of the first book that many will find unforgivable. We all have limits as to what we can accept in a protagonist. We all have lines we cannot cross.
What are yours? What traits can’t you forgive in a protagonist? Some of my favorite characters, in addition to those I’ve mentioned already, are Ender in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Spanner in Nicola Griffith’s Slow River, Tobin in Lynn Flewelling’s The Bone Doll’s Twin. I love Jane Yellowrock and Will Hawthorne, Belinda Primrose and Kestrel. Which characters have you loved? Which have you hated? What made them work for you, or not?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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