Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sneering Heroes

I’ve been limping through a book by a NYT bestselling writer for about three months now. Obviously I’m not enthralled, so why am I still reading it? Because I like to be familiar with the various well-known thriller and mystery novelists out there, and that means reading at least one of their works.

There is much to like about this book. The author—I’ll call him “h”—has a breezy, conversational style that makes for a fast, engaging read. On the other hand, his style is so conversational that he frequently skips back and forth between past and present tense—even in the same paragraph—which repeatedly jerks me out of the story and drives me nuts.

But what has really turned me off on this writer is the fact that his hero sneers at everyone around him. The book is told entirely from the hero’s point of view, and no one—not his dead wife, not his mother, not his sister, not his best friend, not his father-in-law—no one is portrayed as an attractive, sympathetic person except for our hero. He sneers at everyone.

I was commenting on this to my Monday night writers group, and Sphinx Ink—who has a far better memory than I do—said, “I remember you complaining about another writer for the same thing.” I said, “I did?”

So I did. That book—by a former romance writer turned thriller writer whom I’ll call “t”—featured a female protagonist who also sneered at all around her. It was a big book with a huge cast, and the only person our heroine portrayed kindly was an eight-year-old kid—and maybe a horse. I mention the horse because there were two dogs and a cat in the story, and they were also portrayed as unpleasant beings.

So what’s going on here? As writers, we’re frequently told to create a “sympathetic” protagonist—someone our readers will “like.” Personally, I don’t like people who sneer at everyone else, but since these writers are on the NYT bestseller list, I’m obviously alone in finding their work offensive.

Another member of our group, Charles Gramlich, who in addition to being a horror and fantasy writer is also a psychologist, said he thought a lot of people actually enjoy seeing other people put down—that this is a big part of the appeal of Reality TV and shows like Candid Camera and Survivor. What do you think?


Chap O'Keefe said...

I don't like Reality TV and suspect it has been largely foisted on the viewing public as a cheaper production option.

A cleverly worded put-down, especially in an exchange when the recipient gives as good as he/she gets, can be amusing. It's a device I try to use in the Misfit Lil westerns.

My London publisher, John Hale of Robert Hale Ltd, has in the past voiced his preference for sympathetic protagonists. Naturally, I aim not to disappoint him!

Steve Malley said...

Used to be, I mostly only saw this at scifi conventions: frustrated, unappreciated people nurturing a secret (or not-so-secret) sense of superiority, feeding it by belittling others. Back then, I thought this was just a protective mechanism for misfits, but it's much more widely pervasive, and quietly seductive.

This narcissistic sense of entitlement is a dark poison. Left unchecked, it leaves us isolated, selfish and bitter, tuned in to the failings of others and blind to our own. How can intimacy, love or any real human achievement flourish in such a spirit?

I'm sure it's possible to hit the bestseller lists by catering to this common human failing. That doesn't make it right.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm with you, Candice. I don't like snarky book characters. I also avoid snarky blogs, snarky editor and agent talks at RWA, television sit-coms with smart-aleck children, and most reality shows.

Poor Rodney King (of L.A. beating fame) always seemed a real screw-up, but one thing he said often comes to my mind when people get snarky: "Why can't we all just get along?" It's a terrible commentary on our society that so many people are not as wise as Rodney King.

Lisa said...

I don't like it characters who come off as snide and superior. The more flawed, self-deprecating or insecure, the more I tend to like them -- and it gives them plenty of room to grow.

Sustenance Scout said...

We like in others what we like in ourselves and dislike in others what we dislike in ourselves, right? So if one enjoys putting down others, he/she's probably going to like a snide protagonist and vice versa. I'm a wimp; I prefer the good guy every time.

Shauna, interesting that you brought up Rodney King; I'm reading The Freedom Writers Diary about kids in Long Beach who were around 10 or 11 when that batch of LA riots happened and many of them wrote about how they felt as their world seemed to be burning aroud them. It's a powerful book, for that and many other insights. God help us if we don't someday figure out how to get along. K.

Pete Daniels said...

I recommend books all the time to library users and the single thread that runs through my recommendations is that the protagonist is 'likable.' I think the magic that connects Michael Connelly, Stuart Kaminski, and Henning Mankell as writers is their ability to create such likable characters to build each story around. They create characters with whom it is great to spend time. I love it when at the end of a novel I am sad to see my time with the characters end, what skill that takes to create.

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