Continuing from yesterday’s post on setting, my series on Be Better at Book Club: Setting continues with one of everyone’s favorite topics:
Very few people would read if all characters were dull and boring. That seems obvious, but you’d be amazed at how often I’ve read books where everyone in the book is boring as mashed potatoes or absolutely bland.
I think that’s one of the reasons why people have such issues with classic novels– the trials and tribulations of the aristocracy in the 1700s can seem, well, really boring to people nowadays.
Like, personally, I hate most Jane Austen novels because the problems of the characters are so lame. Who’s going to get married! We have to get married! Oh, mawwwwwiage, woe is me! Blech.
But that’s just me.
Most people think your protagonist is your main character, but that’s not always the case. The Protagonist is the person you want to succeed. There can be a lot of protagonists in a story, and they all should have different motivations for asking for what they want. Harry Potter is a great example of this: The older witches want to destroy Voldemort because they know the terror that he can bring to their society. Harry Potter wants to destroy Voldemort because he killed his parents.
They’re all protagonists, because we want them to succeed, but of course Team Harry is the main group of Protagonists in the story.
The Antagonist is the person who keeps the protagonist from getting what they want. Generally speaking, you want this person to fail. Voldemort is the main antagonist of the Harry Potter series, but Draco and Lucius Malfoy are other key antagonists.
Also, the Antagonist doesn’t have to be a person, of course. Duh. Creatures, or society, or just fate in general. Antagonistic, the lot of them.
Characters who don’t change are referred to as static characters. So, an evil character that is just plain evil… static. A great example of this is Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He’s just a creepy dude who covets a ring, nothing else.
I could even argue that, by and large, Harry Potter himself is pretty static. A lot of stuff happens to him and he emotes a lot here and there, but his goals are always the same: be a nice guy, kill Voldemort, make out with Ginny. (Or maybe he evolved because he used to want to snog Cho and then he wanted to kiss Ginny?!)
Static characters are usually Big Ideas: archetypes or symbols that are painted in broad strokes.
Characters who do change are dynamic characters. I actually think one of the most dynamic characters in the entire Harry Potter series is Draco Malfoy– which I think is why people like him so much. As an adult, you can see that he starts out completely evil because that’s what is expected of him; by The Battle of Hogwarts, you can see how much his parents’ quest for power has hurt him and his relationships with his peers and friends, and by the epilogue, he’s got a silent truce with Harry Potter as an adult.
The Controversy of Unlikable Protagonists
Wildly popular novels like Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train have popularized the idea that there are unlikable protagonists– and now it seems as though everyone is clamoring for a book with a detestable main character. But that’s really hard for me to wrap my head around. Maybe I’m a simpleton, but when the protagonist is someone you want to succeed, I have a hard time reading books when your main character is, say, trying to get away with murder, or another heinous crime.
Protagonists, in order to be interesting, should always be flawed. But I’m of the mindset that they shouldn’t be evil.
For example, Cormoran Strike in The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm is flawed to the core. He’s a drunk, he’s gruff and rude, he’s dismissive and he’s completely obsessed with his ex-girlfriend in a not-at-all romantic way. But his flaws don’t make him evil or really all that unlikeable.
What about unreliable characters?
A subset of the Unlikable Protagonist is the Unreliable Character. Usually a narrator and main character of the book, this is someone you can’t trust. People usually put Gone Girl and The Girl on The Train in this camp, too, but I have to beg to say that you don’t have to have a character who is a total psycho in order for them to be unreliable. Every human, complex character is unreliable, because well-rounded characters all have biases and flaws.
A great example of an unreliable narrator is Rosaura in The Cake House. She’s a 13 year old girl whose father just shot himself, and is now living with her mother, who is showing signs of PTSD, and her step-father and step-brother, who are controlling and, at times, completely abusive. Of course she’s unreliable– we’re getting all the details of the story through someone who’s been through absolute destruction! But her unreliability is what makes the story interesting.
Important Questions to Discuss For A Book’s Characters
- Who is the book’s main protagonist? Who is the book’s main antagonist?
- How reliable is our main character?
- Is the character realistic for the book’s setting?