An Unsympathetic Protagonist – Meditation 1.0

I recently attended an author reading of a humorous supernatural fiction novel that shall remain nameless. After hearing several chapters from the beginning and middle, I found my self thinking, “The main character’s voice is hilarious, but the dude is a douche, a parasite who makes a living ruining other people’s lives; he never shows remorse for it, never justifies it, nor in fact does he ever give us the sense there is need for justification.

It brought up a question I have as a writer that is still not fully resolved. It is based on the assumption that a protagonist must be a sympathetic character. I used to think this meant the reader has to like the main character, or identify with her/him. A wise writer friend of mine suggested that we don’t have to like them, per se–nor particularly identify with them–but we do have to be able to sympathize with them, at least in some small way.

Breaking Bad

I suppose that’s why the protagonist of Breaking Bad was able to keep people with him for x seasons; he was despicable in many ways–more and more as the seasons passed–but viewers sympathized with his troubles and miseries. Likable? No. Sympathetic? Quite.

If I Laugh, Do I Sympathize?

Back to the supernatural novel. The only thing this protagonist had going was that he was funny as hell. His snarky voice made me chuckle. But sympathize? I don’t know.I suppose the roots of the word sympathy mean literally, “to feel with.” I guess if this unlikable protagonist is making jokes and I’m laughing, I’m sympathizing with him–literally “feeling humor with him.”

But that reasoning makes me dizzy and I still don’t feel I sympathized with him.

Not Funny Enough

So I bought the book based on the chuckles I got from the reading, but only read halfway through before I put it down. NOTE TO SELF: Turns out, funny isn’t enough to form that emotional attachment with a protagonist I need to want to spend a lot of time with them.

To be fair, the author seems to have cherry picked some of the funniest passages in the book to read to us, so maybe I lost sympathy simply because the rest just wasn’t funny enough. I was there for the cherry passages of hilarity, then…the ick showed through.

Until I meet another such character who is much funnier, I won’t know the answer.

Corollary Observation: The Comic Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card

A funny narrator can get away with much that would spoil a story with an ordinary narrator. for example, info dumps of exposition cause readers to skim ahead, or sigh and doggedly push through in hopes such dumps won’t come often.But I’ve read info-dumps that were so funny I didn’t care at all. My friend Craig has that knack. I could read his exposition all day.

So I remain undecided as to whether an unsympathetic protagonist can be similarly redeemed by being very, very funny.

If you know examples of characters that fit that bill, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts below.


Re-imagine the Familiar

Tolkein’s Legacy

The reason you don’t see lots of new Tolkeinesque stories of halflings and dwarves and elves in the book stores is that those things have been done. Most people want something new. It isn’t that dwarves and elves and halfllings can’t be used in stories any more, it’s just that if you use them, you probably need to re-invent them in some unexpected–even iconoclastic–way in order to make them fresh again for the reader.

One could argue that the genre of urban fantasy is largely the result of just such a need for newness and rethinking.  Black Blade Blues comes to mind, with its investment-banker dragons–what a wonderful re-imagining that is! (Who are the hoarders of gold today–the symbols of greed–if not the Gordon Geckos?)

I recently took my kids to the wonderful Crest Cinema to see the animated film, Rise of the Guardians, in which the artists reimagined the all too familiar figures of Santa and his elves. How did they reinvent them?

Santa became a burly, tattooed Russian with a rolling Russian accent, a huge rough laugh, and the words Naughty and Nice tattooed on his massive forearms.

His “elves” were replaced with teams of huge and hairy yeti, who were responsible for all the toy making (as well as any fistfights that needed staffing).

Okay, there were elves present–the standard cliche elves with tiny bodies, cute faces and pointy ears and hats–who laid about (drunk, in my memory) and idle, as a kind of window dressing, but even that was a reinvention of elves.  

As a result, the old tropes were again fresh and entertaining, and in some cases can even cause us to question our assumptions about the familiar (do Russians have a different idea of Santa?).



Another Fun First Contact Scene

The excerpt below is also from Mary Sisson’s Trust (see previous posting).

This scene actually precedes the one in the previous post (sorry–out of order, I know). it is actual moment of first contact when Daring Attack sees Trang and his marines before they have the universal translator present.

Since the universal translator is not yet in the scene, language is not the thing being held up in the “mirror” for us to examine. Instead, Daring Attack focuses on our physical form, which, to him is very strange as his species is an eye-less quadruped with no “head,” to speak of. His first guess is that the humans might be Mechanical Aliens (i.e. remotely operated drones operated by a third species of alien that can’t move around in air).

Excerpt One

He was closer to the Mechanical Aliens now. He could hear them.

Oupa oupa oupa!” said one.

Oupa oupa,” replied another.

The aliens were mostly sticking near their vehicle, folding something up. But one of them began walking closer to where Daring Attack was. As it came closer, Daring Attack realized with a start that it had only two legs.

A Two-legged Alien, not a Mechanical Alien, he thought. Unless the Mechanical Aliens also have only two legs.

No, he decided, as he watched the alien tip forward, lurch a leg underneath itself to keep itself from falling, and then repeat the process. It was a miracle the thing didn’t just flop over and wriggle about helplessly on the ground. This two-legged thing is too bizarre to have been ignored.

(And then later when they find the translator and can talk to him)

The Two-legged Aliens said they were happy to see him, which made Daring Attack wonder if he had overreacted when they surrounded him—maybe they had just been curious. In any case, after a few minutes of conversation with the diplomat, the four in the brush stepped back out into the clearing.

Not that talking to them was any less unnerving. Close up, Daring Attack could see that the aliens had this ball-shaped appendage that was connected to the rest of their body by only a slender stalk, which looked like it could be chopped through in an instant. This appendage never stopped wobbling—it would wobble when they talked, it would wobble when they were silent, and when they walked, the appendage wobbled atop their wobbly, lurching bodies.

It made Daring Attack dizzy.


God I love that. Those last four of five lines had me laughing out loud.

The First-Contact Mirror

Some of the best spec-fic holds up a mirror in such a way that we see aspects of our species/culture anew. Often this is accomplished by showing first contact. Ursula Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind, with its human diplomat arriving at a planet of hermaphrodites; also Larry Niven’s Ringworld, with its humans, puppeteers, and kzinti.

The First-contact Mirror

I recently found a hilarious first-contact mirror in Mary Sisson’s novel Trust (sequel to Trang), which follows the human diplomat Phillipe Trang as he interacts with five or six different species of alien.

In these scenes, inter-species communication is made possible by a Universal Translator device, which struggles to decode the expletives of the human space marines assigned to protect Trang. Since the POV in the scene is that of the alien, the results are hilarious and thought provoking.

Excerpt from Trust

(Setting: Trang and his marines meet the alien (named Daring Attack) near their crash site on a wild and remote part of an alien planet as a giant T-rex-like thing referred to as a “Giant Mankiller”  approaches through the jungle. The dialogue starts with the marine nick-named Princess).

“I cannot see it,” said Noble Person, who was holding a machine to its face.

“Of course not—if it was that close, we’d be dead,” said Daring Attack.

“What distance—” Noble Person stopped.

“His units for measuring length—” said the diplomat.

“I am knowledgeable of that fact,” said Noble Person. “If the carnivore continues toward us at the rate of travel at which it is currently traveling, at what time will it reach us?”

“His units for measuring time—” said the diplomat.

“May it remain for eternity in the mythological place where the spirits of the ignoble dead reside!” said Noble Person.

“I express my regret,” said the diplomat.

(The marines then launch surveillance drones and show the video to Daring Attack):

“There it is,” said the alien holding the sheet.

“Sacred digestive by-product,” said Noble Person.

Daring Attack tried not to dwell on the fact that he was risking his life for people who worshipped digestive by-products. Instead, he noticed a large dark blob on the sheet.

“Mythological figure who regained life after being dead for three days and is engaged in reproductive activity, it is large,” said the other alien.

“Is that the carnivore?” asked Noble Person.

Daring Attack looked at the blob. Was that the Giant Mankiller? He couldn’t tell.

(When the marines send armed drones to attack the Giant Mankiller, the marines watch through video monitors, muttering…)

“Draw closer on, you small individual conceived in a socially inappropriate manner,” said the alien. “Draw closer and obliterate that buzzing flying insect that is engaging in reproductive activity with you.”

Has it gone insane? Daring Attack wondered.

After I was done howling with laughter, these are some of the things I found myself thinking about: 

Why do humans use feces and sex in expletives? Okay, we’re primates, we like to throw poo, and now that we have words to do it with, we don’t need to get our hands dirty. I get that. But sex?  Do all human cultures do that, or just puritanical Western ones? For that matter, do (puritanical) Islamic cultures do that? Do Hindis? Do the Chinese? The Japanese?  Maori?  Australian Aborigines? Are we all sex-and-potty mouths?

If you are fluent in these cultures, please comment and share.

World Building: Fashion in Speculative Fiction

Fun with Folly

Excellent spec fic writers build this absurdity into the worlds they create. Recently, I’ve noticed two wonderful examples of writers or directors who employ this understanding to great effect.  The first is George R. R. Martin, whose Slave Masters in the fifth Game of Thrones book have wonderfully absurd hairstyles sculpted in shapes like bird wings or rearing animals or supplicant hands in primary colors.  The women in that culture wear tokars, which are essentially a kind of fancy mummy wrap from the armpits down, making it almost impossible to walk.

Hunger Games Fashion

The other example is the designer of the costumes, hairstyles and make-up of the elite “capitol” culture in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. Wonderful world building.








World Building: Fashion

Trial and Error

Soon after reading Neutron Star for the first time, one of my students appeared with an asymmetric beard, and it actually looked pretty cool.  He had very thick facial hair, so he could do extremely precise designs in it; I imagine sparse beards would not look so good.   In any case, Niven’s use of the asymmetric beard got me thinking of the wonderful absurdity of fashions when viewed across cultures (or even within cultures).

Universal Absurdity

No era is immune to this absurdity.  As evidence, I submit to you the saggy ass-pants of teen culture.  (Really?  You want to show me your underpants?) Nor is it only sub-cultures who are guilty, as anyone can tell you who has picked up their high school yearbook after twenty years away. If you haven’t lived that long and you think your high school yearbook pictures look “bomb,” just you wait.  You’ll cringe. Or wait until you show them to your kids.  “Mommy, what was wrong with your hair?”

Yours Truly

Exhibit two, my sophomore tolo picture.  That’s right.  I’m wearing a brown tuxedo with brown-accents on the ruffled shirt and cuffs.  Eat your heart out.