Ask a reader what she wants in a novel, and one of the answers you’ll probably get is the likeable protagonist. I recently read a novel where most of the reviews mentioned that people hated the main character, so they hated the book. I would argue, though, that a protagonist need not be sympathetic—as long as the issue they’re wrestling with is compelling and the character is interesting.
It’s an issue I wrestled with while writing Lela White, the main character in THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS. She’s an antisocial stalker who needs to remind herself to act normal in public. She believes in some really bizarre things, and she’s not afraid to kill to defend her worldview. I read quite a few novels with unreliable and/or unlikeable narrators to see what worked and what didn’t—We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Fight Club, The End of Alice, Notes From the Underground, American Psycho. All the protagonists are seriously messed up. What I discovered is there’s no one way to write a protagonist like that. I tried to hover over the line of crazy but with an admirable goal (sort of Dexter-esque in a way).
Here’s the thing, though: most truly unlikeable characters in literature are men. I’m not saying there are no women, but there are definitely fewer. The unlikeable female protagonist is less acceptable for some reason. Okay, I guess I do know the reason—it’s the stereotype of femininity. Men are aggressive. They’re action-takers. On the other hand, women are expected to be nicer, more submissive . . . even if they’re the hero of the piece. They have to save the day while acting and looking like the socially acceptable version of womanliness. There are plenty of kick ass female literary characters—Darla from Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series comes to mind immediately—but they’re generally also nice in some way. Girly. Womanly. There’s been a lot of progress made on this front, but there’s still work to do. That’s exactly what makes writing a character like Lela so tricky. The earlier versions of the novel had a Lela who was a lot pricklier, a lot more ruthless. Feedback suggested I soften her, make her at least slightly more likeable on the surface.
When I’m reading a novel, of course I want characters I can root for. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the main character, though. Mrs. Gerhardt, Zory . . . even The Chin . . . these are the foils to Lela in THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS. The humanizing influences on Lela, I guess. They’re flawed, too, and that’s what makes them interesting. Flawed characters are good—they make me want to read a book, simply to find what happens next. Unlikeable characters are fun to read as well. It’s not just the what happens next factor. It’s the how it all ends factor. Because with unlikeable characters, you just know the ending is going to be insane . . . and I’m all about a great ending.
Publishers Weekly calls THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS (Bitingduck Press, ISBN 9781938463440) a "skillful mainstream examination of a psychotic woman’s final descent into insanity." The novel exposes the chaotic inner life of Lela White, a sleep lab technician and mentally ill insomniac who believes she has been tasked with protecting the safety of the revitalized U.S. space shuttle program. She breaks into the homes of astronauts to watch them sleep, and she is prepared to kill to keep those with sleep problems from the shuttle launch. Her delicate grasp on reality becomes more tenuous when annoying co-worker Trina Shook insists on moving into her house and visiting Russian cosmonaut Zory Korchagin inserts himself into Lela's life. Korchagin's increasing interest puts her carefully-constructed world at risk of an explosion as surely as he does his own upcoming launch. Lela's tragic childhood unfolds throughout the novel, revealing the beginnings of her illness and long-buried secrets, and as Lela’s universe unravels, no one is safe. Buy a copy of THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS at your local independent bookshop, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or anywhere books are sold.
Nicole Wolverton fears many things, chief amongst them that something lurks in the dark. From ghosts to stalkers, her adult and young adult fiction plays on the mundane and not-so-mundane things that frighten us all. THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS is her debut novel. She is a freelance writer and editor and lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband, dog, and two cats.
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