So, your protagonist is a first-rate jerk
You’d be hard pressed to find a protagonist on any successful show who’s a bigger jerk than Dr. Gregory House. He hates everybody, except for hot chicks he lusts after. He has no bedside manner. He’s cranky, argumentative, abusive, dismissive, manipulative, and a raging egomaniac. In short, he’s an utter bastard, and no one in their right mind would want him coming anywhere near them with that thermometer.
But for some reason, viewers can’t stop watching.
Readers are the same way. They really enjoy books with protagonists who are jerks. They’ll even go for books with characters who, like Dr. House, are mean as hell so long as the writer manages one key trick. The bastard has to be a loveable bastard. How does that work?
Being an outright jerk isn’t exactly normal. There is a lot of social pressure on people to conform to the accepted standards of polite behavior. Resisting that pressure is hard, so the first question in a reader’s mind is going to be why is this character such a jerk? I think most of us, under the skin, are jerks to some degree—we all think badly of others at times, and wish we could say out loud what we’re really thinking about them—but we hold back. We know that’ s not ok, so we hold it in.
House doesn’t. He’s utterly uninhibited in his jerkism. Readers will wonder why, and you have to give the reader a good answer here in order to create some sympathy. In House’s case, it is because he has suffered great personal loss. He needed surgery on his leg to save his life, but it left him permanently debilitated and with chronic pain. Oh, and his wife left him. That’s enough to put anybody in a cranky mood, so when we see why House is a jerk, we’re able to sympathize with him.
House, in five stages terms, is stuck in a mixture of anger and depression. Intellectually, he recognizes the reality of his injuries and his wife’s departure, but emotionally he’s stuck. He hasn’t fully moved on to acceptance. Anger makes him want to lash out at the world and everyone in it through jerk behaviors. The depths of his depression—coupled with his over-sized ego—mean that he simply does not care what anybody else thinks of him. At all. Together, those factors remove the normal inhibitions that keep the rest of us in line.
So maybe your jerk had something bad happen to him in the past, and he’s only acting that way because he hasn’t truly gotten over it yet. But there are other reasons. One reason that can work very well in middle-grade and young-adult literature, is simple immaturity. A character can be a jerk simply because he or she hasn’t yet learned that it’s a losing strategy for life.
As well as informing the reader why your protagonist is a jerk, to be loveable the jerk must also have some kind of redeeming qualities. A jerk with no redeeming qualities whatsoever is just a psychopath. If there’s no good in the character at all, then you’re in Hannibal Lecter territory rather than Dr. House territory. And true to form, Dr. House does have a number of significant redeeming qualities.
First, he’s incredibly good at what he does. The whole show is premised on his being the best diagnostic medical practitioner around, bar none. Patients come to him when nobody else can figure out what’s wrong, and he always figures it out.
Second, he’s relentlessly passionate about his work. He will go to any length to figure out what the patient’s problem is, and in fact often turns his jerkish uninhibitneness to good use in that pursuit. He’s not above stealing a blood sample from an unconscious patient, faking insurance forms so he can get a MRI scan for an uninsured patient, lying to his boss, breaking into patients’ houses to search for environmental factors behind their disease, et cetera.
Third, sometimes we see him make an effort not to be a jerk. He knows he’s a jerk. He knows that’s not the best thing to be. So sometimes we see him do a good deed or offer someone a kindness. Not often, but sometimes. Rarity makes those moments extra powerful.
And fourth, there seems to be hope for him. As the show dribbles out his backstory, little by little, we see that he wasn’t always like this. Or at least, not so much so. We understand that he’s caught in the grip of anger and depression. His hurt is deep, so his healing will take a long time. We all anticipate the day when he will at last reach emotional acceptance, although it will not likely come before the show’s final episode.
That’s House. Whatever redeeming qualities you give your characters, they should be ones that motivate the character to take morally right actions, even amid all the jerk things they do.
Show redeeming qualities in action
I’d be remiss not to warn of a danger with redeeming qualities in novels. TV writers, in a certain sense, have the luxury of images. A TV show doesn’t typically have a narrator, babbling over the quiet spaces of a show, explaining what’s going on. TV writers, thus, have no choice but to find ways of showing House’s redeeming qualities in action. They have no way of telling us that House is relentless when on the trail of an elusive disease microbe, except to show him acting that way.
Novelists—and I see this a lot from clients who are still working on their first or second manuscripts—do have the opportunity of using outright narration to convey information to the reader. The written word, as opposed to the filmed image, gives you the option to do that. But I caution you strongly: explaining to the reader in a paragraph that your protagonist will go to any lengths to get the job done—that is, telling them, is not as effective as showing the character taking those actions.
This is at the heart of what the “show, don’t tell” rule of creative writing means. TV writers have no choice. They have to show, rather than tell. You do have a choice, so make the right one.
Finally, consider your character’s overall arc. In a TV show like House, the whole show is predicated on House being a jerk. They can’t really change that without drastically altering the reason why people watch the show in the first place. This is why we know that Dr. House will never reach emotional acceptance until the show’s final episode. That’s the soonest point where it makes sense for a recurring TV show to change something fundamental about their premise.
In a novel, you have more options. Your book is going to end—and unless you’re working on a series that is already sold to a publisher—it needs to end in a way that provides emotional closure for the reader. Most often, that means allowing a jerk character to move beyond being a jerk, at least in some small way. Most often, it means creating some kind of overall character arc within the larger plot, through which your jerk protagonist ends up a better person by the end.
This doesn’t mean the character has to do a one-eighty and become the nicest guy in the whole world. Far from it. You can provide the emotional closure even with minor changes in a character’s behavior. Maybe your protagonist ends up only slightly less of a jerk than when the book started out. That’s ok. (And if you’re hoping to turn the book into a series, preserving as many jerk qualities as you can will help you.) But showing at least one moment of the character doing something that isn’t a jerk move, that he couldn’t or wouldn’t have been able to do at the start of the book, can still provide the emotional closure readers seek.
I said most often you can satisfy the reader by allowing the character some personal growth, but not always. You might have a story in which the character actually does need to be a jerk. Maybe your character is a repo-man, who makes a living repossessing cars from people delinquent on their car payments. It’s not a fun job. People get mad when you take their car away, no matter how much they might deserve it. Just to get by, your character might need to be a jerk. Or maybe your character is an police officer in a vice unit, deep undercover within a dangerous gang. Being a jerk is the only way to fit in, get the job done, and survive.
Stories like those require that the character be a jerk, and don’t permit you to change it. But even in those stories, you can provide the reader with emotional closure through a character arc. You’ll just use a different kind of arc. Rather than an arc of personal growth by the character, you’ll use an arc structured around revealing to the reader a difference between the jerk behavior the character is forced to engage in, versus a less jerkish inner self that the character would rather be, but can’t. The emotional point of the story is for the reader to understand the character, rather than for the character to change.
Why it all works
Loveable jerks make great protagonists because we all wish we could act that way. We wish we could be so dis-inhibited and free as to act on every impulse we have, whether kindly or mean-spirited. In real life, we can’t. The social costs are too high. Jerks get punished by having few, if any, friends. Jerks are the first ones to get fired when their employers face a choice of who to lay off. Jerks, if they are so disinhibited as to flaunt the law, can easily jerk their way right into prison.
Thus we love our loveable jerks because through them we can indulge our own jerkish fantasies. As writers, we can do a lot worse than giving our readers the chance to live vicariously through the characters in our novels.
April 12, 2010 19:38 UTC
The five stages of grief
There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.
We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.
Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.
It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.
Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.
So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:
Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.
Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.
Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.
Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.
Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.
That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.
I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.
As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.
Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.
Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.
“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”
“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.
No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.
“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.
“Gregor!” the midwife called again.
“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”
It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.
Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.
As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.
Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.
August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC
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