I picked up this twofer piece of advice in a writing class. Have I said that writing classes seemed much more essential, and certainly worth paying for, once I published? Well, that’s true. This piece of information picked up in the class is not written in stone, however. It’s more of a rule of thumb, and rules are made to be broken when the reason is good enough. However, you have to know the rule to know you’re breaking it.
One: Use first person when you want to tell about the world as perceived by your narrator.
Two: Use third person when you want to describe the world from more than one point of view, or from a less personal standpoint.
I also learned that we ought to write likable main characters. Again, not certain that I agreed that’s always true (Annie Proulx seems to be doing okay with her crusty New Englanders), I decided to make a checklist of what makes a likable character.
Then I decided it was more important to have characters be compelling. I don’t know that everyone positively falls in love with Elvira and Mel. We can overcome this problem of unlikeability by giving the character a likable sidekick or narrator, we can give them a dog. If the dog likes them, they can’t be all bad, right?
The same evening I was thinking this through, I wanted to vedge out in front of a movie. I took Waterworld off the shelf. And then I took Midnight Run off the shelf. Then I took Desperately Seeking Susan off the shelf. I had a handful of characters here I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with. Well, Charles Grodin is okay, but I hear he washes his hands a lot. Plus you just have to watch the movie to know he can be pretty annoying.
I kept going and pretty soon I had a huge stack of loveable movies with unlovable characters at the center. Most of them didn’t have dogs or charming sidekicks either. I figured out that if the world is going to hell in a hand basket, we cut the characters a little slack.
And if they’re being played by Jack Nicholson, we’re there to gawk. I mean, we love him and hate him at the same time, right? Even the romance writer who can’t date isn’t truly sympathetic, never mind likeable. You have to admire that.
From watching several Jack films, I learned it’s necessary to give the unlikable character what my son calls redeeming qualities. We hope that he or she might be able to change their ways enough to find happiness, but we’ve forgiven them on some level, because they’ve done something we know we probably don’t have the courage to do, or wouldn’t dare to do, or would die doing (although in a movie, they usually live through it). or perhaps they have a talent. The romance writer writes, okay, but he also plays a mean piano. We’re reminded that he spends a lot of time alone. And he comes to love the dog. Let’s face it, once that happens, we’re goners.
And we still don’t want to win Jack as a prize in a raffle.
No matter whether you want your reader to love or loathe your protagonist, the character has to be somebody so interesting we just can’t walk away from that book. It’s your attitude toward your character that determines, ultimately, how your reader receives your characters.