Friday, July 2, 2010

Non-Heroic Main Characters

Sharon's post on Wednesday was wonderful. A week or so ago in a post I said I'd like to discuss unlikeable/amoral/immoral central characters, including those who seem to triumph. We’re not talking here about pointless novels, but those in which the central character is not a hero in the ethical/moral sense, at least through most of the novel.

In the following points, I realize that my descriptions for the sake of brevity are simplistic and inadequate, so please bear with me for the sake of a basis of discussion. Here are some examples of the type of main character I’d like to discuss.

1) I know I gush about a lot about the quality of the writing in The Great Gatsby, but its central character, Jay Gatsby, is someone whose yearnings for the unattainable Daisy make you forget that he probably is a criminal who has made his money just to impress her and to convince her to commit adultery with him. His love is all-encompassing but one-dimensional, yet when he dies, it is devastating.

2) Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella I re-read last week for the first time since college. In it, a narrator describes a man he admires who died with the words, “The horror!” The narrator, who is fascinated by this man’s exploits and god-like colonialist power, feels treacherous in lying to the depraved man’s fiancĂ©e by telling her that his dying words were her name.

I also read "The Snows of Kilmanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway. What a tour de force description of a man who has used people (specifically women) his whole life to finance his writing career, which he realizes as he is dying, was focused on unworthy subjects when he could have written about the really interesting people of his life, such as the poor. But the real cheat of Hemingway (from the Christian point of view) is that this man doesn’t really regret (as 2 Corinthians 7:10 defines regret) or repent of these things. In fact, he would go back and do his self-focused deeds just the same if he’d been given the chance. He even scorns and patronizes the dogged love of his wife – yet dies peacefully believing he is going to the place of the gods.

Another book I read recently was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. Its protagonist is a suffering person but a rapist and someone who has unfairly treated and judged many people in his life. The reader cringes at how he relates to others through almost the entire book. When he does act morally it’s often because he feels guilty or wants to accomplish something. However, he comes to realize how to forgive and how to achieve wholeness, or “roundness,” as the book puts it. I was glad I stuck with this man’s story, someone who was often paralyzed by ambivalence and his own victimization.

So the point of all this is not a series of book reports. This is a blog about writing.

We saw last week that we were unable as a group (NovelMatters ladies and those who commented) to cite an example of a Christian book in which the protagonist/ending allowed for the triumph of evil or injustice. And yet we have to assume that those *“non-Christian” books such as I listed put the burden on the reader to step back and say, “No, these characters are not people I’d like to live in the same house with, but my distance from them and my own moral compass tell me to assess them and see that they are a lesson in how not to live my own life.”

My question is this: What are the benefits and risks for a Christian writer who wants to tackle the daunting task of creating a non-heroic main character?

*I realize that Wally Lamb is a Christian writer whose writing is superlative. However, as I recall, I Know This Much is True (the only book I have read by Lamb) mentions Christianity only peripherally (one character decides to return to church, there is talk of Catholicism as a cultural issue) and -– even more significant -- some of the protagonist’s final understandings come through insights he derives from Native American Religion and Hinduism. The protagonist does achieve catharsis through forgiveness, but that quality is not exclusively a Christian trait; nor does the novel tie forgiveness to Christianity. (If you’ve read the book and want to argue my conclusions, I’m all ears. But first answer the other question, please.)


Alexandra said...

Hmmm...I'm not so sure about my last comment now. I thought that the Phantom of the Opera was an anti-hero, but he's sounding more like a non-heroic guy. He's violent, he's possessive, but he's vulnerable, needy, and tragic (not to mention charismatic)--and the result is millions of women who are crazy about him. I mean, how many Raoul fanclubs can you find out there?

I think the challenge would be that it's outside of the traditional mold, what people are used to and "want" to see in a hero. In Christian fiction we "want" a good, safe, got-it-all-together hero. I applaud anyone who can tackle this kind of a character. Getting him right would be an enormous challenge.

Nicole said...

"What are the benefits and risks for a Christian writer who wants to tackle the daunting task of creating a non-heroic main character?"

Randall Arthur's Jordan's Crossing contains an anti-hero who does the classic turnaround. However, for me it was too late to take him seriously. It just didn't work. He had inspired such, well, hatred (because in literature I think those feelings get released), that his "redemption" felt contrived.

The only benefit I can see is giving the anti-hero an area where we can see ourselves and derive empathy for the character. Yes, if we're honest, we might be able to see ourselves in thieves, murderers, liars, etc., but sociopathic serial killers? Not so much. An exaggeration I know. But the motivations for an anti-hero have to be sympathetic, or we simply see a wicked, bitter, or cynical persona with an unredeemable attitude. He has to have a weak spot where he lets us in to a hurting heart. I think of Jude in Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary-Margaret.

The thing in general market literature that turns me off to it is this false hope in self, mystic wonders, or anything but the Lord. Because anything but the truth is false "redemption", it leaves me cold. So a turning around by an anti-hero to something false is emptiness continued.

Bonnie Grove said...

It's difficult to figure the role of anti-hero in Christian fiction because Christian fiction very, very rarely deals with big picture social issues. For the most part, the Christian fiction arena is personal redemption. The stories focus on the smaller individual story and are most often issue driven.

In order to make great use of the anti-hero, in my estimation, the story needs to examine a broader scope and help us understand the complex factors at work inside a culture or society that helps create, re-create, and sustain a particular type of anti-hero.

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is filled with anti-heros (many of whom are allowed in the story to live and prosper), people we are being asked to come to understand - not to like, not to become an illustration of redemption - in order for us to come face to face with an important truth about our overall culture.
THE GODFATHER is the story of an idealistic man who refuses to follow in his father's footsteps - until his father is murdered and the son vows revenge. What follows is the story of a sub-culture that, once able to grab hold of someone, will in time own his soul. The protagonist of the story is the hero of the story. He just happens to be an anti-hero. A bad guy who gets worse.

The typical anti-hero as I see him/her isn't a character ripe for redemption, rather it is a character who is empowered by the story to hold a mirror to the face of our society, our culture, and ourselves in order that we come to some better footing about the truth of who we are, and what we have allowed our society to become.

And, with that definition, I honestly don't see that in Christian fiction. But I would love to be proven wrong! Help me out! (But, Nicole, Jude doesn't count as an anti-hero. He is the antagonist in the story - same with The PHantom -I saw this production last year, Alexandra. I had SO much fun!!! - The Phantom isn't an anti-hero, he is the antagonist of the story.)

Nicole said...

Bonnie, I can't see Jude as the "antagonist" in that story even though I know he's not the protag or anti-hero either, but then I don't always conform to the standard literary definitions. It's his qualities that would serve him well as an anti-hero.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nicole: Jude is the antagonist because that is his function in the story. all love stories (and POMM is a romance novel) have a hero - the POV lover- and the opponent -the non-POV lover. So its by virtue of his function in the story that he is the antagonist.

It's important to understand antagonist in a broad sense and not as "the bad guy".

I'm noodling over Jude's qualities - I barely recall him in the novel. A bit of a non-entity. But there have been lots of anti-heros like that. Cellophane men who need a mother-figure to make their lives livable. Jeffery Archer is a master of creating these kinds of anti-heros, particularly in his short fiction.

Interesting thoughts!

Stephanie Reed said...

You've all given me a glimpse of why I was finding my third novel so difficult. My first two books had clearly Christian heroes as the main characters. The third one posed a problem. I'm writing novels about a real family, so I know that at the time of the story, just before the Civil War, the youngest son was most likely not a Christian, and I don't know that he ever became one. I bounced a first draft chapter off my friend and fellow children's novelist Susan Marlow, and she immediately agreed that he wasn't likeable enough. Understand, he was raised in a Christian family (his father was the Reverend John Rankin, well-known Underground Railroad conductor). He does something wonderful for society, frees slaves, but he does it because it's a challenge, at least as I see it. He would not have a conversion scene at the end.

So what I finally decided was to tell the story through one of the rescued slaves. Now the Rankin son is in the story, but not the main character. I don't know the literary term for the role he plays. Maybe you all can help me. But it's great to understand at last why I was having such a hard time.

"My question is this: What are the benefits and risks for a Christian writer who wants to tackle the daunting task of creating a non-heroic main character?"

As I re-read the question, I'm not sure I answered it, especially if 'evil triumphs' is in the equation. But what I saw was the risk of alienating the parents who buy books for their children.

"And yet we have to assume that those *“non-Christian” books such as I listed put the burden on the reader to step back and say, “No, these characters are not people I’d like to live in the same house with, but my distance from them and my own moral compass tell me to assess them and see that they are a lesson in how not to live my own life."

The point above made me think of Romans 3:7-8 (New Intl Readers Version)

7 Someone might argue, "When I lie, it becomes clearer that God is truthful. It makes his glory shine more brightly. Why then does he find me guilty of sin?"

8 Why not say, "Let's do evil things so that good things will happen"? Some people actually lie by reporting that this is what we say. They are the ones who should be found guilty.

At any rate, I guess it's not going to be yours truly who writes the groundbreaking Christian antihero novel. :-)

Stephanie Reed said...

My, I'm long-winded today. I didn't answer the benefits part of the question, but I suppose that would be critical acclaim for being the first to explore new territory. Glittering reviews.

Nicole said...

Bonnie, I'd still have to disagree. I don't consider Jude a non-entity at all. Nor do I think his position makes him the antagonist in the story. But, it's okay--it's just my opinion. I thought he was a powerful element in the story and served to give the title a dual meaning.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nicole: Yes, we can agree to disagree about the qualities of Jude's characters. I felt he was a shlump. But that is only my opinion. I suspect my overall opinion of the novel would jar with yours. It's all good!

His position in the novel is not opinion. It's simply story structure - it's how his characters interacts with the main character. He is the love interest - making him the main opponent... making him the antagonist.

Again, it's important to understand 'antagonist' in it's true sense as a function of story structure, not as "the bad guy".

Steve G said...

In any story you typically have one hero, the main character who is the protagonist. If the protagonist is dastardly, he could be an anti-hero rather than the hero - the term speaks of his character. These are common literary definitions that are pretty straight forward. The one who opposes the protagonist or is in conflict with the protagonist's position is the antagonist. This is not necessarily a person.

If you wrote a Biblical Historical novel on Saul, he would be an anti-hero, and David would probably be the antagonist. To the end Saul ran from God and was disobedient. We always read this story from David's perspective, and as such he is a hero (protagonist) and Saul is the antagonist. In this perspective you wouldn't call him an anti-hero. A story would not have a hero or anti-hero, not both (unless your hero had a split personality (e, Myself, and Irene) and then that is a different category...).

Nikole Hahn said...

In my novel, there is an anti-hero, but he is just a subplot designed to be the main character in book 2--He's turned from his wicked ways. He's not all he seems.

Steve G said...

If he is a sub plot, he is not an anti hero. He may be an antagonist. If he is the lead character in your second book, he could be an antihero then. But if he turns from his wicked ways, he would probably be a hero.

The term is not applied to a person regardless of what role they play in a story. The anti-hero is generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero, and is in some instances its antithesis. That's why Latayne mentioned the books she did. These terms are about the structure of your specific story, not their character in general.

Benefits/risks to the Christian author for this type of book? Hard to sell in CBA. Could be a series on the bad boys/girls of the Bible, which could be in the "thriller/horror" category.

Anonymous said...

Yay, I'm home! So glad to be back. I'm finding this a very interesting conversation. I'm going to do some more research on "the anti-hero" concept to see where my character fits in the definition. Steve and Bonnie are correct when they say the one opposing the protagonist (be she good or bad) is the antagonist (be she good or bad). My protagonist in my WIP has a goal she wants desperately to achieve. The people who love her most are doing everything they can to thwart her efforts. They are antagonistic to what my main characters wants, which is to prevent her from doing a really bad thing. So even though what they want is a good thing, they are the antagonists. So antagonism in the framework of a novel is just that, opposition to what the main character wants. When the main character is an anti-hero, that turns the traditional definitions on their ears. But the definitions still hold.

Alexandra said...

"It's important to understand antagonist in a broad sense and not as "the bad guy"."

Thanks SO MUCH. That clears a lot up, as I've heard before of non-bad guys being referred to as antagonists and never understood it before. ;-) Great discussion today.

Bonnie Grove said...

Another compelling way to paint the antagonist is to create a character who wants exactly the same thing the protagonist (hero or anti-hero) wants but with the values that are the opposite of the protagonist.

Welcome home, Sharon!!! I can see you hugging the whole house, so glad to be back in your regular digs. Yay!!

Alexandra: I'm so happy this has been a productive discussion for you. I feel the same way!

Stephanie: Your novel sounds so interesting! I love stories of the underground railroad!
It seems you've managed to shuffle your characters in a way that suits the telling of your story. That's so important to do! Many frustrations can be avoided if we stay flexible and change things up when we see they aren't working.
And you've helped pin down one of the reasons why Christian fiction doesn't produce anti-hero novels. Well done! Thanks so much!

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

The risk is that no one will want to read about the character. I'll admit--I hated two of the stories you referenced (and didn't read the others). I have to have a reason to care about a character and I don't often find one in a non-heroic protag.

Now, Scarlet O'Hara was different, but I think that's because she quickly became heroic, even if it wasn't for altruistic reasons. Once I cared, I kept rooting for her to grow beyond herself. The end of Gone with the Wind haunted me for weeks.


Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

What are the benefits/risk? I guess it depends on what you are trying to do with your book. The lighter reads almost always have characters that ruffle very few feathers. They like to present themselves as having anti-heroes, but they don't. Where as the books that are grittier (is that a word?) and much more enjoyable to read, those have the best characters. Ones that you love to hate and can cheer when they do turn from their "evil" ways. What I think is important is to not make that redemption sound forced. I hate the endings where everyone is "saved" at the end, even if it doesn't fit the story line. A bad ending ruins a whole book.