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