September 13, 2016

Really Bad Story People, or What Becomes of the Braying Jackass?

Yes, officer, this guy is bothering me.
Yes, officer, this guy is bothering me.

By Alexa Day

Long ago, in a critique group with a very talented group of writers, I faced a bit of a dilemma. One of my colleagues had passed around a story that revolved around a character who was just an irretrievable ass. Of course, this character was paired with a female character who just doted on and encouraged the protagonist’s worst qualities. She made it possible for him to move through the world as an ass. I kept waiting for some development in the story to awaken the protagonist, for some realization to surface in his porcine proto-brain. I didn’t necessarily want him to turn into a sweet, cuddly pookie bear (that’s not an attractive alternative, either, really), and I wasn’t hoping for a grand apology. I just wanted him to recognize that everything he had in the world came from his being an ass.

But nothing like that happened. In essence, the story could be summed up thus: protagonist, a braying jackass, rides his girlfriend’s coattails into society and amazing success.

Eventually, with everyone’s eyes on me, I had to confess to my colleague that his character was unlikeable. It seemed to be the cornerstone of the story, and not in a magnetic way. If there was more to his life, I couldn’t ascertain what it was.

My colleague offered me a smug grin. “Well,” he said, “do ya have to like everyone you read about?”

I know where he was going. Sometimes, little girl, you’re going to have to read people you don’t like. Yeah, no shit, honey. Pretty sure you didn’t have to read some of the uplifting tales of racial suffering I had to slog through in high school. But thanks for the reminder, sweetheart.

And at the time, I did need to read about likeable people. I was working a hellish job at a law firm, serving a horde of people I didn’t like or respect. I have crossed the street to avoid some of those people. I was not going to invite more of them into my life for the sake of promoting literature.

I thought of this experience again on Sunday. I had such grand plans for Sunday — who doesn’t, right? — but I watched all of them fall into a great black hole created by a book I was reading. I don’t want to speak its name, for fear that I’m not actually the last person in this hemisphere to read it. I’ll just say that I literally could not put it down for more than a few minutes, and that everyone in the story was an awful person.

My mind went back to my condescending colleague. I could barely get through 10 pages of his obnoxious protagonist, but I devoured 400 pages of these terrible people. So what had happened?

I don’t think I’ve changed all that much. I still don’t want to invite additional awful people into my life.

Part of the difference, I think, is that 400 pages gives an author enough time to seduce the reader. None of the characters in the longer story was an irretrievable ass right from the jump. Not in an obvious way, anyway. By the time I started thinking, “I don’t know about you, dude,” I was being pulled along by the story.

I also think that my fiction receptors were hoping some great justice would deliver the goods to the population of awful people in the book. The book flirts with that possibility, and that’s all the opening the mind needs. No, don’t walk away. It’s still possible that everyone in the story will spontaneously combust. You’ll want to be here for that, won’t you?

This led me to think of romance.

Neither the short story nor the longer book I’m talking about here is a romance. But whenever I read something that sparks such an emotional response, I wonder, “Could one write a romance in that way?”

On the one hand, romance is written in kind of the opposite way. We want the hero and heroine to get what they deserve, but the story is constructed so that they deserve happiness. A happiness they may never have considered for themselves. If there is a better feeling than watching the hero open his eyes to the fact that he is loved, finally, in a way he didn’t think he deserved, I’m not sure I want to know what it is.

Look back at that last sentence. Isn’t that what my colleague from critique group was trying to accomplish?

Stubbornly, I have to cling to the idea that my reading life has no room for the Irretrievable Ass and the Enabler Who Loves Him. I’m just determined to be right about that.

But in a genre where authors think cigarettes and recreational sex make a character “bad,” could we stand to broaden the range of people who make our stories live?

How good does any of us really have to be?

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Alexa Day is the USA Today bestselling author of erotica and erotic romance with heroines who are anything but innocent. In her fictional worlds, strong, smart women discover excitement, adventure, and exceptional sex. A former bartender, one-time newspaper reporter, and recovering attorney, she likes her stories with just a touch of the inappropriate, and her literary mission is to stimulate the intellect and libido of her readers.

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  • Post authorbarbaramikula

    Alexa, I have to agree. I don’t want irretrievably bad people in my life — either real or fiction. I am a writer myself so I know you have to balance good and bad, and characters have to learn from their mistakes. The only time I ever posted a really bad review was a book in which the heroine had survived being held hostage and tortured by a sexual sadist. She was trying to get on with her life when it happened a second time. Sorry, that is not a good story and it is not in the least sexy. Frankly, I don’t remember the name of the book or author (I do remember it was a man). I just read another story which was part of an anthology. It wasn’t objectionable in the way the other one was, but it basically had no story. There was hot sex — hero and heroine meet briefly, there are some sparks. Later they meet by accident on a resort island. Sex Sex Sex, but not much story to sink you teeth or emotions into. All my characters (male and female) are not perfect. What fun would that be? But the classic definition of pornography is something that has no redeeming social value. The first story was that. The second not, but not a good read either. Skye Michaels – http://www.skyemichaelsbooks.com

    Reply to barbaramikula
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I think this is a big part of the problem with The Great Sagas of the Donkey People: insufficient motivation. Why is this person such an ass? Is he okay with being an ass? What makes a woman love a man like this? Is she okay loving such an ass? Sufficient motivation will ease a person into an uncomfortable story like a warm bath. But man, some stories need MUCH more motivation than others.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorKel

    So, horrid situations are interesting, and sometimes (often?), horrid situations are because of terrible people. Really awful things make good books, but I, personally, would rather read about a relatively good-in-ways-I-appreciate person trying their best in that horrid situation. I think I’m not alone in this, but not everyone uses the same measuring stick for what’s an acceptable flaw.

    For example – lying. Some people think that the ability to scam someone is wonderful. I think it means that your character is a worthless thing, and I wouldn’t trust them to walk my dog. Let’s not even get into what it means in actual humans.

    I have no desire to read that, but sometimes I get sucked into a story, and there’s a character in there that I really dislike… that can be okay, I just spend the book rooting for their messy, unpleasant end.

    • Post authorAlexa Day

      That’s part of what made the experience valuable for me, oddly — pausing every so often to ask myself why I couldn’t just walk away from all these awful people. I’m like you — I’d prefer to see a reasonably decent person doing their best in whatever situation the author throws at him, even if he screws up from time to time.

      I think I did get sucked into the story. I mean, I spent all day in that book, so I cannot now be heard to complain that it was a bad book. But I just could not turn away from those awful people. Even after I realized that they were just plain terrible and were not going to turn into good guys (and that happened very early in the story), I guess I just needed to see how far down that abyss went.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorJackson

    Asshole characters are one of my literary pet peeves. I am NOT reading a book to HATE the people I am reading about. I am reading to lose myself in a world where, unlike the real world, only the good guys succeed. It’s called FICTION, which yes, does give the author the freedom to write assholes as heroes, but it is also supposed to be a place where I can escape from the assholes in the world.

    I read a Laura Lee Guhrke (sp) book years ago that had a unapologetic adulterer. He suddenly became faithful once he decided he needed an heir, and tried to seduce his wife back into his arms. It wouldn’t have been a totally terrible book if the asshole apologized for openly cheating on his wife for YEARS, and fathering an illegitimate child with another woman.


    I HATED that book. It got me all worked up again!

    Reply to Jackson
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      You know, I could not help thinking that somewhere out there, an old-fashioned, garden variety, reptilian creep is pushing doggedly through a book and wondering why people like him never win in fiction. 😉

      Reply to Alexa Day
      • Post authorMadeline Iva

        Poor reptilian creep. Well, there’s always self-publishing. He can write a book where the reptilian creep wins.

        Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authorSM Johnson

    I have a sideline character in my Dungeon series who’s been fairly present in most of the books, and he’s one of the main characters in the book I’m writing now. It’s fun and tricky to turn an asshat around in a story. It’s taken some thought (and re-visiting his parts in the other books) to figure out why he’s been kind of an asshole, and what’s going on internally with him to make him come across that way. The big question is… can I let the reader get to know him well enough that they’ll root for him now?

    Even Jeff, one of the main characters all along – he started out fairly unlikeable – kind of whiny and self-centered, but the more I’ve been able to develop his character, the more he’s been able to examine that part of himself, and (I believe) he comes out in the end as some readers’ favorite character.

    What I’ve discovered in this process is that when a character is really disliked (to the point that a reader puts down a book or is angry about a book) this is generally a good clue to the author that they’ve written a shallow character. Even a sociopath can have at least one thing that’s important to him beyond everything else. And if the author can mine that one thing, then even terrible people can have riveting stories.

    Reply to SM Johnson

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