Last week I started a book. The two main characters were from a different race and were essentially vampires, although they weren’t called that. It was kind of a romance, kind of coming of age, but it involved a lot of sex and murder, without any hint of conscience or consequence. Nor was there any other character trying to put a stop to it.
I didn’t finish the book.
I decided to bail because I couldn’t get into either of the main characters at all. It wasn’t that they were bad or did evil things – I don’t need the protagonist of every book to be a flawless hero (read The Water Road if you don’t believe me). But there has to be something there and it made me start to think about what we expect, as readers, from our main characters.
Stories are all about characters. Regardless of how inventive the world building or how labyrinthine the plot, if the people who are living in that world and doing those things don’t connect with readers than it’s kind of a wasted exercise.
Do main characters have to be good heroes who strive to do right and seem like really fun/nice people to be around? That’s certainly one way to go. Having your main character be someone who’s easy to root for makes it easy for readers to be swept away in their story. Those kinds of characters tend to be kind of dull, though, since they’re always doing the right things for the right reasons. Still, people generally want good to triumph over evil, so it’s one approach to take.
A more subtle approach would be to have a main character who has flaws and sometimes makes bad decisions, but who’s heart is basically in the right place. This is where most main characters fall, I think. Since I referenced The Water Road before I’d say that’s where Antrey belongs. She does a horrible thing, but spends the rest of the trilogy trying to make up for it and learn from it.
But what about bad guys? Anti-heroes? Can’t people identify with main characters who are generally doing wrong? Of course! It’s a much trickier situation.
One of my favorite main characters I’ve come across recently (and who I’ve mentioned recently) is Johannes Cabal, necromancer and start of the series that bears his name. Nobody would accuse Cabal of being a good guy – in fact, a lot of his troubles come from the fact that he’s fundamentally involved in wicked shit (when your first book involves making a second deal with the devil, you’re working overtime). Why do I like him? For one thing, he’s funny. He gives very few fucks about the people he comes across. That, I think, is key to having a main character who’s a bad guy – if they’re fun to watch do what they do, even if it’s evil, it’s easier to be on their side, so to speak. Also, deep down in Cabal’s core, he’s trying to do a good thing – cure the human race of the disease of death. It’s a laudable goal, even if the only way to get there is to slog through darkness.
Another way you can make a main character who does bad thing someone to root for is make their antagonist even worse. The wife and I stumbled across Freaks this weekend on Netflix. Neither a remake of the Tod Browning classic or an adaptation of the Marillion tune, it’s about a little girl with powers and a father trying to protect her. Not “evil,” particularly, but since the kid has no idea of her powers or personal boundaries she does some seriously bad things. That said, the government agency charged with hunting these people down was even worse. It’s easy to wish for a bad, but perhaps redeemable, character against someone who just wants to exterminate them.
I suppose the bottom line for any main character (or any character, really) is that readers have to be interested in them. Maybe not love them, but at least be curious about them and where they’re going. It’s easy to buy in with heroes and people trying to do good. But even people wandering around doing evil have to be interesting. If they’re not, why waste your time reading about them?