Some interesting comment exchanges and a well-written review from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (Do yourself a favour and follow that blog if you don’t already!) have all got me thinking about protagonists. Like real-life people, some protagonists are easy to like. Others are fascinating people but you might not want them as co-workers or want to get to know them very well. Others are not likeable at all. And of course, not everyone likes the same protagonists because people’s tastes vary. So the question is, do you have to admire the protagonist in order to be drawn into a novel? Or is it enough if you find the protagonist a realistic, well-drawn character even if not a likeable one?
The protagonist who helped spark this discussion is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. It’s easy to see why one might not find Ripley an admirable character. He’s been described as completely amoral, and there’s a lot of truth to that. He’s been mixed up in fraud, forgery, murder and more and although he’s not without any feelings, he doesn’t have what many people think of as a conscience when it comes to what’s right or wrong. In Ripley Under Ground for instance, he and some business associates conspire to commit art forgery, fraud and more when practically unknown painter Philip Derwatt dies. One of Ripley’s associates forges new “Derwatt” paintings and the other two use their photographic and journalistic talents to promote the “new” works and increase the value of Derwatt’s art as well sell the forged work. The entire plot is Ripley’s idea, and when art enthusiast Thomas Murchison begins to suspect something is going on, Ripley is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the group’s arrangement from being uncovered. Some people find his character reprehensible or at the very least not admirable and that’s enough to put them off the novels that feature him. Others find him fascinating even if not likeable.
Another protagonist mentioned in this discussion (and also the subject of Bernadette’s terrific review) is Jassy Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong. Jade de Jong is a Johannesburg-based private investigator who’s definitely not everyone’s cuppa. She’s tough, sometimes violent, and sometimes crosses the line, as the saying goes, when she feels the ends justify the means. She can be selfish, or at least self-centred, too. For example, in Random Violence, she works with her father’s former police partner (and later, her lover) David Patel to solve a series of three apparently unrelated murders that turn out to be linked. What Patel doesn’t know (and what many readers feel she ought to have told him) is that de Jong has another agenda. Her father was murdered ten years earlier and his killer was never brought to justice. So de Jong plans to deal with her father’s murderer in her own way. She isn’t exactly always a warm and pleasant person. But many readers find her fascinating and she certainly is both smart and resourceful. She’s also believable and well-drawn, especially considering the area of Johannesburg where she grew up, and the circumstances of her father’s death. We can imagine a person like her. But that doesn’t mean readers have to find her admirable.
That’s also true of James W. Fuerst’s Eugene “Huge” Smalls, whom we meet in Huge. Huge is a twelve-year-old boy who wants to be a detective like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Certainly the lives those detectives lead are more appealing to Huge than his own life. He’s smaller than average, which makes him a target for bullies. So does the fact that he has a lot of difficulty managing his anger. Huge gets his chance to be a detective one day when his grandmother offers to pay him to find out who defaced the sign at the senior living facility where she lives. Huge agrees and begins asking questions. On one hand, there’s a lot that’s not particularly admirable about Huge. He’s extremely self-absorbed, he blames everyone else for his problems and he’s contemptuous of a lot of people. In fact, his sister Eunice “Neecey” describes him as a “little Holden Caulfield,” and it’s easy to see why she makes that comparison. It’s also easy to see why Huge has trouble making friends and getting along. And yet, he is an interesting character. He’s also smart, loyal in his own way and determined. And he is a very realistic character. I’ve met plenty of people like him and I’ll bet you have, too.
The character of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan very much drives the series that features her. She’s a Baltimore private investigator who, as we learn in Baltimore Blues, begins her career when she loses her job as a newspaper journalist. Monaghan fans will tell you that she’s bright, funny, brave, honest and compassionate. But she’s by no means perfect. She can be impetuous, so that the reader can sometimes wonder, “How could you do something like that without thinking?!” She can also be stubborn, and not always in a positive way. And although she’s not deliberately heartless, she is sometimes tactless. And those qualities sometimes get her into very big trouble. She’s often at odds with herself too. I should note here that Lippman’s Baltimore setting is a highly effective aspect of this series. But that aside, it’s enough driven by Monaghan’s character that if you like Tess Monaghan, you’ll enjoy the series very much. If she doesn’t appeal to you, you probably won’t enjoy the series.
Even Agatha Christie, whom many acknowledge as one of the great crime writers, created characters that not everyone admires. For instance, even Christie is said to have got fed up with her creation Hercule Poirot. He is conceited, at times cryptic and sometimes downright condescending. And yet, he is an interesting character with an interesting past and of course, he’s a brilliant detective. Christie was better known for her plots than for rich character development but Poirot ‘s personality is strong enough that if it appeals to you, you’ll enjoy the novels that feature him. If you find Poirot off-putting, you won’t enjoy the plots as much.
Most of us are a mix of positive and negative traits. The same’s true of fictional protagonists. Not all of them are likeable to everyone. But does that mean you can’t enjoy novels that feature a protagonist you don’t admire? What do you think? Is it enough for you if a protagonist is believable and real? Or do you have to find her or him likeable? I’d really like your view on this because it’s one of the best kinds of questions – the kind without a simple answer.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Promises.