The Fallacy of the likeable protagonist: a review of “The Demon’s Lexicon” and “Corbenic”
Or, walk softly and carry a sharp sword
This post is inspired by a discussion we’ve been having recently, and also by two excellent books I just read. In the discussion, some people seemed to evaluate characters according to whether they liked them or not. That’s quite human, and I’d guess we readers do it all the time. I’ve done it myself. I’ve said, a few times, about books or films, “I didn’t like it because I didn’t like any of the characters”. But do you really have to like a protagonist for a story to work for you?
This past month, I read two excellent teen fantasies that call this thesis into question. They are “Corbenic” by Catherine Fisher, and “The Demon’s Lexicon” by Sarah Rees Brennan. And, quite honestly, it is difficult to like the two young men at the heart of these stories. But, in the end, it is very easy to love them – perhaps Nick, of “The Demon’s Lexicon”, in particular. Because there is a difference between liking a fictional character and liking a person in real life, and there is an even greater difference between merely liking a character and loving them.
In case anyone hasn’t read the “Lexicon”, a brief introduction to our main character may be necessary. Nick Ryves, the protagonist, is a surly young man of 16 or 17. Nick has a hair-trigger temper; he seems to be angry a lot of the time, and, when he is angry, he genuinely wants to destroy whomever or whatever is enraging him. Since he is physically powerful and quick and possesses any number of exceedingly sharp swords and knives, his temper might easily become a deadly problem. It doesn’t take long for the reader (this reader, anyway) to decide that there is something seriously wrong with Nick.
But, at the same time, we learn that Nick has good reason to be frustrated with his life. He and his brother are on the run, and his brother, only four years older, is responsible for him, and has been for years. Their father is dead, and their mother insane, and, perhaps worst of all, they are being hunted by evil magicians. As the book opens, the two boys experience – and fight off – a magical attack. So we know that, if Nick were not as skilled and deadly as he is, he might not be alive. We also discover that there is a strong bond between the boy and his older brother and that Nick is extraordinarily brave, loyal and honest. In fact, he cannot dissemble at all; he’s not capable of pretending to feelings he doesn’t have. That sort of honesty may seem almost inhuman, but it’s surely admirable, as well.
But the virtue Nick has that drew me in – that made me worry for him and hope that his problems (which, naturally, get steadily worse) had some sort of solution is very simple. He loves his brother. As a result, I ended up loving Nick, even though I’m not sure I’d ever want to be around a real-life version of him. Reading about these two young men facing a dangerous world alone was thrilling. And I only get thrilled by a story if I can care about the characters.
Cal, the protagonist of Catherine Fisher’s “Corbenic”, at first seems even less likeable than Nick. Where Nick is simply angry, Cal is angry, insecure and ambitious. Like Nick, Cal ends up with an exceedingly sharp sword; unlike Nick, he has no idea what to do with it, or even why he has it. Cal is in flight, running away from the mentally ill, alcoholic mother he has been looking after since he was six years old, and from the slum where she lived with him. He wants respect, wealth and comfort; he wants to live in a posh house, like his uncle, and to have nice things. Then no one will sneer at him or think him less than he is – so Cal tells himself. He wants to break completely and cleanly from his past, and everything – and everyone – that reminds him of his former life. Needless to say, this is not as easy as Cal thinks it will be.
On his way to his uncle’s, Cal gets off at the wrong station, a place called Corbenic. It is late, and raining hard, and there is no one around, and no signs telling him where to go. As he searches for shelter, or at least a telephone, he comes across two men fishing in a lake. One is a paraplegic, unable to walk. They give him directions to a hotel – or is it a castle? When Cal finds it, he is welcomed, and finds himself at a feast, seated in an ornate chair – or is it a throne? – next to Bron, the owner. This is the handicapped man he had earlier seen fishing, and who had given him direction. As the feast ends, several young people enter the hall in a sort of procession: a boy with a bleeding lance, two others with candles, and a girl with a cup. This procession – or vision – is a test, a test Cal fails. The next morning, he finds himself alone in a ruin, not in a hotel full of guests and wait staff. But there is a sword driven into his pillow, just above his head. And the sword, beautiful and deadly, is real. Cal hangs onto it, even though he doesn’t know what to do with it, because it is proof of his sanity. It’s his schizophrenic mother, not Cal, who has visions and hears voices. Cal isn’t like her. It terrifies and appalls him when he hears her voice, on the phone, talking about Corbenic. But the sword is real.
As Cal begins work at his uncle’s accounting firm, Corbenic keeps intruding into his day-to-day life. He doesn’t want the sword; he wants to sell it and get money, but then he finds himself using it to defend himself against some muggers – and comes across friends who help defend him, and who insist they are part of the round table, Arthur’s court. The osprey from Corbenic seems to be pursuing him. No one else sees it, but, when it attacks him, the scratches and blood on his face are real. Cal’s three worlds – the new age Arthurian reenacters, his uncle’s rational, work- and- money based life, and the dream of Corbenic – seem to be blending somehow. And, from all three worlds, from family, friends and strangers, the boy keeps getting the same message. “Go back. You must go back.” But where is Cal supposed to go, and how is he to get there? Corbenic is not on any map. British rail insists there is no such station. And, even if he were able to find Corbenic again, what could he do to change things? His mother would still be a crazy alcoholic, and nothing he could ever do or say could make that better. One thing he absolutely refuses to do is to go home again.
This, of course, is a retelling of the story of Percival, and it’s quite brilliant. I’m not sure if I’ve been able to convey, in spite of all the spoilers above, just how brilliant it is. If this book works for you, as it did for me, it will be because you worry for Cal and want him to find his way – whatever that happens to be. And this brings me to what inspired me to write these reviews in the first place.
After reading “Corbenic”, I checked amazon for reviews by readers. I looked at both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, and I couldn’t help but be interested in the difference of the reactions. On the British site, all the reviews were raves. On the American site, though most of the reviewers praised the book, a couple panned it because these readers found Cal so unlikeable. And I found myself saying, “But that’s the point! Of course Cal is hard to like! There wouldn’t be a story otherwise.” It astonished me that some readers couldn’t empathize with Cal’s terrible fear of becoming insane, like his mother. It amazed me that they couldn’t see how trapped he was by his past, and how much courage it would take for him to truly face and transcend it. Without Cal’s flaws, there wouldn’t be a story. And it’s precisely his flaws, as well as his virtues, that make him a good protagonist. The same is true of Nick in ‘The Demon’s Lexicon”. These young men may be hard to like, but that doesn’t make them less lovable. It was easy for me, at least, to empathize with them, and I was rooting for both of them on every step of their journeys. Like Cal and Nick, a good protagonist will have flaws; his (or her) actions will push story forward, and the reader will want him (or her) to succeed. But do you have to like a character to root for them? Do you have to like a character to empathize with them, and desire their success? I don’t think so.
In fact, it’s possible to damage one’s characters, and one’s story, by smoothing out their rough edges and making them too “likable”. That’s a common writing sin young authors commit, and the resulting characters tend to get called Mary Sues, or Gary Stus. We see it all the time in fanfic, but it can happen in published novels, too. Much better to let one’s characters be who they are, even if they seem unlikeable. Much better to let them act and react in complex, and sometimes even bewildering, ways, as Cal and Nick do. Protagonists need to have journeys, and they need to be characters a reader can root for, and even love. They don’t need to be characters a reader can like. There’s a difference. I hope I manage to remember this as I work on my own story; I’m engaged, right now, in writing a novel about, among other things, a teenage boy with an exceedingly sharp sword. Hey, maybe I’m catching a wave here!
Cal and Nick are terrific protagonists, in my humble opinion. And Brennan’s plotting, and Fisher’s emotional depth and lovely prose, are well worth experiencing. All fantasy fans – read these books! You won’t be sorry.
* Mood: cheerful