Posts Tagged ‘Lolita’

Occasionally in fiction writing, you create characters you find utterly repulsive. Maybe it’s their personality, maybe it’s what they do or believe in, but these characters are VILE.

And surprisingly, writing them well is kind of challenging. I should know. I’m working on a story now where I hate most of the characters. Why? I’ll get into that a little later.

(Though if you’ve been paying attention to my Facebook posts or Twitter feed, you might already know why.)

The thing is, while you may hate the character you’ve created, you can’t let that hate show too much in your writing. You have to treat them like you would any other character. Showing your contempt may be easy, but the reader may notice. And while they may agree with you, they will be turned off by the clear aversion and disdain coming off the page, especially if it’s a protagonist. “Why even bother writing this character if you’re going to make it so obvious you don’t like them?” That might be what goes through their minds. Instead, write them like you would a character you like.

A good example of this is how Vladimir Nabokov treats Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita. In an interview, Nabokov stated he found Humbert a hateful person for obvious reasons. But he didn’t show his dislike for the character and his predilections in the story. Instead, he writes the novel normally and let’s the readers come to hate him by his actions.

That’s something to keep in mind. Instead of showing your disdain for a vile character, let their actions do the work for you. You can do a lot just by showing a cruel teacher depriving a kid of ice cream or a prison warden manipulating his prisoners to attack each other, rather than by describing them as nasty pieces of shit.

Dolores Umbridge. A great example of a vile character.

You can then supplement that by showing other characters’ reactions to the hated characters for being assholes. JK Rowling, despite her faults, did this quite well when Harry and his friends described characters like Umbridge or Pansy Parkinson and focused on their negative traits. Rowling famously hates those characters, by the way, and made sure they suffered or didn’t get happily-ever-afters in the end.

What if you have to show things through the perspective of the hated character, however? Well, that’s where it can get queasy to write them. Because, as much as you might hate them, you’ll often have to write them as any other character. For instance, l’m writing characters who are neo-Nazis.

Yeah, you read that right. The story I’m working on now is full of neo-Nazis, people who would gladly see me dead for being Jewish (among other things). And I am writing them as I would most other characters. I could write them and focus on their hatred and nasty ideology, and in another story I could get away with that. But for this story, I can’t let them just be stock characters or stereotypes, much as I want to. Instead, I’m trying to show the reader how the characters might see the world. And let’s face it, neo-Nazis are people, and they’re as complicated as any other character. So I should try to write them that way.

That being said, I am going to show just how horrible these people and their toxic ideology can be. And then I’ll take great pleasure in showing what horrors occur to them later in the story. Hey, I’m a Jewish horror author who loves visiting terrors upon his enemies. What do you expect?

So, writing characters you consider vile is more than just making them hateful or showing how much you hate them. It’s a combination of actions, character description, and even writing them in a complex manner. And, of course, making sure they get what’s coming to them if it fits the story. It may make you feel sick to write them that way, but it can also lead to a good story becoming that much better.


On an unrelated note, the anthology I’m helping to produce, That Which Cannot Be Undone, is closing in on forty percent funded on Kickstarter! Not only that, but we’ve added a whole bunch of new perks and have announced some new authors joining the project as well. Some of those authors have even volunteered to name characters after backers and kill them off in style should they back certain limited pledges. Isn’t that cool? You could be a character in another author’s story!

If that, and helping our group produce a kickass horror anthology featuring new stories from me and my friends, you can check out the campaign by clicking the link below.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crackedskullproject1/that-which-cannot-be-undone-an-ohio-horror-anthology

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. For those who celebrate, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas. If you need me, I’ll be joining my friend John McClane at Nakatomi Tower for Nakatomi Corp’s annual Christmas party. I hear they tend to go out with a bang every year.

Until next time, Happy Holidays and pleasant nightmares!

Illustration from The Red Shoes.

Illustration from The Red Shoes.

When I was growing up, every protagonist I came across in fiction–comic books and manga, novels, TV shows, movies–were people you automatically liked. They were sympathetic, they had problems you could identify with, or they found themselves in situations and something about them made you want to root for them, even if they were just good guys set up to fight the evils of the world. At that age, I probably couldn’t have imagined a protagonist who wasn’t likable.

As I got older though, I did come across protagonists who, for some reason or another, I just couldn’t like. And I realized, in some cases, that was the intention. Their creators, for whatever reason, wanted these characters to be assholes, or losers, or just so hateful you found yourself cheering a little when they failed. This had me asking: why would you want an unsympathetic protagonist? And can you actually have a good or even a successful story based around one?

I figured out answers to these questions a while back, but I’ve always wanted to blog about them. Now I’ve got the time, so I’d like to go into the strange phenomena that is the unsympathetic protagonist.*

First, why do authors sometimes write unsympathetic protagonists? It seems almost counter-intuitive: why would you want a character whom readers/viewers might hate? Well, one reason is as a moral warning. In the fairy tale The Red Shoes, the protagonist is vain and selfish, and her attitude leads her shoes being enchanted so that when she dances in them, she can’t stop until someone chops them off. I bet a lot of kids got the message loud and clear from that! Another example is from the novel The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, in which the protagonist, the daughter of a crime boss, tries to regain her lifestyle and reputation after her father loses his empire. However, the protagonist uses mainly crime and manipulation to get what she wants, and looks down on getting a real job or an education. The result is that she ends up in jail and loses everything she ever cared about. The lesson? Crime doesn’t pay, go legit, and listen when people try to help you on the right path.

Another reason is that creators might want to explore territory previously unexplored, and characters whom you might sympathize or consider as heroes doesn’t allow that. Ever heard of Lolita? The entire story revolves around a man having a sexual/romantic relationship with a preteen girl and his attempts to control her and keep her with him forever. It’s a strange novel about desire, unreliable storytelling, and corruption (I think, anyway. I haven’t read this one yet, and given the subject matter, I’m not sure I want to), and it’s not a story we’d usually explore through the eyes of a likable protagonist.

Lolita: a great example of a book with an unlikeable protagonist.

Lolita: a great example of a book with an unlikeable protagonist.

And finally, there’s another reason: sometimes it’s just great fun! In certain stories with unsympathetic protagonists, you get a sort of excitement  that you don’t get from other stories, and this can come from the plot or the characters. In Gone Girl, for example, protagonist Nick Dunne is unlikable for any number of reasons, but you still follow along because you want to know if he really did do something to his wife, and if he’ll wiggle out of trouble whether or not he did do something. Another example we can look to is certain horror films, especially in the slasher genre, where the only mainstay is usually the villain and a lot of gory deaths. As part of that, slasher sequels often come to focus more and more on their villains, and people come back just to see these villains. Just ask anyone who enjoys a good Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser film: they’re there for Freddy or the Cenobites, not for the horny teens who happen to be starring in the movie this time around.

So we’ve established why people create unlikable protagonists. The next question is, can you have a good and/or successful story with an unlikable protagonit? Well, I think that question was also answered above. The Red Shoes has been retold and revamped hundreds of times since Hans Christian Andersen first published his little morality tale. Lolita is considered one of the greatest works of modern and modern Russian literature, as well as one of the most controversial. Gone Girl was a runaway hit with a huge movie based on it. There is plenty of proof that unlikable protagonists can still be part of very good stories.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: great series, annoying lead.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: great series with an annoying lead.

Of course, this brings up another question: what makes a story with an unlikable protagonist good? Well, I often find that either the character is doing something pretty amazing, or the story or world is so amazing that even if you don’t like the character, you keep going for that story/world. Going back to Gone Girl, the protagonist is easy to dislike, but the mystery he’s wrapped up in is so intriguing that you want to find out more. That’s the example of a character doing something interesting. With an amazing story or world, I’d point to the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion: the protagonist is seriously unlikable, but the world he lives in is so cool–it involves teenagers piloting giant robots to fight aliens–that you just want to keep watching.

So you can have a story with a main character whom people may not like. As long as you give people a reason to keep reading or watching, it’s entirely possible. And who knows? Perhaps it’ll be one of the greatest stories ever written.

Just don’t do one centering around a pedophile. I think one of those is enough!

What’s your take on unlikable protagonists? Did I miss any good examples of the trope here in this post? 

*Oh, and in case anyone who’s not familiar is wondering, there is a difference between a hero and a protagonist. A hero is just that: a hero. They save lives, they fight evils, they are the ones we root for. A protagonist can be a hero and vice versa, but a protagonist is the main character, the person whom the story focuses on or from whose perspective we get the story. And as I outline in this post, that difference is bigger than one might think.