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I'm looking for ways to build early reader investment in an unlikable character who "learns better," but not until fairly late in the book. In particular, I'm writing a first-person middle-grade novel in which, among other flaws, the protagonist/narrator is often unconsciously (and without malicious intent) racist, sexist or otherwise offensive. (He does get pushback from other characters, but basically ignores it.) He eventually becomes a better, more self-aware person, but not until fairly late in the book.

I've toned him down quite a bit from earlier drafts of the book, but I still get the feeling he's turning people off early enough that they never get to the later parts of the book. (People who have persisted past the start have reported feeling more invested in the later parts of the book.) I don't want to sanitize him too much because a) his learning and changing is an important part of the book, b) these issues (racism/sexism) are ones I would like to address, and c) I think the portrait is a realistic one.

My sense is that perhaps people are willing to accept some flaws in their hero, but these are too "hot button" right now for them to be read past. Conversely, it especially makes people uncomfortable in a first-person narrator, since it's like going along silently with a racist buddy. What should I do?

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What positive character traits does your MC have? Surely he isn't all bad, a one-dimensional caricature of schmuckiness?

Consider: in The Three Musketeers, d'Artagnan beats his servant (and Athos threatens his with a pistol), d'Artagnan rapes Milady (after Athos attempts to murder her, and before the four finally "execute" her), the main plot has the team assisting treason, and that's just off the top of my head. But we're still rooting for the Musketeers, because they are brave, because they are good friends to each other, because they often act selflessly and with integrity.

If your MC has redeeming qualities, if he is compelling despite his flaws, I believe readers would stick through with him.

In fact, consider Lolita: Humbert Humbert is a thoroughly despicable child molester. But he is witty and smart, and apparently that is compelling enough for readers to stick with the novel and consider it a masterpiece. Lolita is narrated in first person, like your novel. If your last paragraph was correct, surely a child molester would have been far more repulsive than a racist? If racism is a "hot button", surely child molestation should be more so?

Consider, therefore, making your MC's inner monologue more engaging, more interesting. Make it so we'd be curious to hear what your MC has to say, even if we disagree with him.

  • +1. I've been trying to do this with my MC but apparently not with "enough" success yet. But the note on voice is a good one. When I went from third person to first person, I basically just transitioned from my own voice as narrator into a simpler, less elaborated one. But that's probably not enough to make it compelling. – Chris Sunami Oct 22 '18 at 19:31
  • +1 for the completely on-point examples. – Liquid Oct 23 '18 at 10:28
  • Humbert Humbert is a child molester who DIES IN JAIL, still warped and lying to the reader. His story is an epistle, so it is obvious he is an unreliable narrator – he literally writes his memoir from prison while awaiting trial (also readers of the day knew the actual case the story was based on). He does not "team up" with friends, become a better person, and then readers "like" him as a sympathetic figure who is somewhat redeemed. Try Huckleberry Finn as a protagonist who is ACTUALLY likable despite having a host of ignorant traits and antisocial behaviors. – wetcircuit Oct 25 '18 at 12:37
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Signal early on that he is an unreliable narrator, at the very least you will let the reader understand there is a difference between the POV and the author. That might keep some people interested.

You'll also have to accept that a lot of the world is just tired of narratives that center a racist a-hole being a crappy person while continuing to erase and abuse disenfranchised voices. We live in this story everyday, and have lost all patience and sympathy for a "parable" about polishing a turd.

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    Hi @wetcircuit, I'm sensitive to your concerns (in the second para of your answer) --they are a large part of why I'm asking this question in the first place. // The first part is good advice, but it might help if you added some specifics on how to signal the narrator's unreliability. I say that because I've tried to do this, but I'm not sure I've been successful. // On an unrelated side note, I'd encourage you to not be too quick to assume bad faith from JMac. People can legitimately disagree --or be confused --without it being trolling. – Chris Sunami Oct 23 '18 at 20:35
  • @ChrisSunami, this is mixed signals: "unconsciously (and without malicious intent) racist, sexist or otherwise offensive. (He does get pushback from other characters, but basically ignores it.)" It seems you want to split hairs, He is innocent but you said in the other thread you want him as "a brat". Is it casual/environment or is it him? If you explain in more detail what you are doing with this character and how you have signaled it to the reader, we can try harder to be clearer, but the 2nd part of my answer is still true: some readers just won't get invested in this protagonist. Ever. – wetcircuit Oct 23 '18 at 21:00
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As it happens, I'm also writing a middle-grade novel with an unlikeable character. He's not the main character but he's one of the secondary ones. He has a full arc where he changes and so far two chapters are 3rd person from his point of view (in his head). He's a bully and somewhat racist and a total jerk. Now he's stuck in a situation with a bunch of people who can't stand him.

Nobody thinks "I'm a racist jerk who likes to commit assault." Those are words other people use. They think "that person got me so mad I had no choice." Or they single out the one person not like them who does something wrong and overgeneralize.

There are ways to describe what he is thinking or doing where the reader can see the logical flaws. For example, if he hits someone there will be a reason (there's always a reason) but it's something so stupid that your reader will know that you the author aren't saying it's okay.

Even racists will interact with the people they are prejudiced against. That varies some, as a lot of racism and similar bigotry is against people the racist has perhaps never met (look at the animosity against Muslims and Arabs). If he is racist against, say Latinos/Latinas, for example, show him interacting matter of factly with classmates whose parents immigrated from Mexico or a storekeeper from the Dominican Republic...the way that most anyone would.

Racism has no logic and racists pretty much always handwave and create some exceptions for people they like or have to interact with. A real life example is the bully I was in high school classes with, the one who had a swastika at his desk (we had permanent cubicles), bragged about his dad having been in the Nazi armed forces, and put down me and the other Jews every chance he got. His best friend was, surprise, an Orthodox Jew (who was equally a jerk but not anti-Semitic).

Jerks don't recognize these things as unlogical or problematic. They don't see how having Hispanic friends and hating Hispanics is a contradiction. They think everyone will hurt someone else if they are pushed too far and are brave enough. In their inner dialogue, they'll state the facts as if it was normal. But the reader will notice.

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    "Racism has no logic and racists pretty much always handwave and create some exceptions for people they like or have to interact with." This is true, and it would add realism to the story. Seeing the MC interact positively with other etnic groups despite his mild racism could be seen as a sign that he is "redeemable", even if as you note in realty it doesn't always work that way. – Liquid Oct 23 '18 at 10:31
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Consider making the entire story into a flashback, told by the more refined and open minded narrator whom the "hero" will someday become. In the opening pages of the story, have this refined narrator set the stage for what is now your opening scene, perhaps with mild embarrassment over the crudity of the tale he is about to tell. Then, when he falls back lyrically into an imitation of his previous small minded self, the reader can accept that it is just an act... a gift being offered at the cost of the future narrator's pride, for their sake, that the story might be properly told.

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    I like this in theory. It may be tricky for me to make this work in practice, but it's probably worth a try. It feels a little bit like a "cheat," but then again, so are many other effective writing techniques. – Chris Sunami Oct 22 '18 at 17:19
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You also might consider making someone else the POV, with his or her focus being on your former POV. This would allow you to tell the story, but readers don't have to feel they are inside the head of someone they dislike. Maybe the POV can be a sibling or a cousin, and that person could help the former POV to become a better person.

Having someone other than the POV be the "hero" is something that has been used quite successfully. Sherlock Holmes is my personal favorite. David Weber also does a great job of having a plethora of characters, all looking at the main character.

Could you do alternating POVs, between the sibling/cousin and your main character? That might be a way to give the readers some relief from the initial "bad boy" stage of your protagonist. You might even allow readers to believe your protag is going to be the villain, then redeem him at some point.

One last suggestion; give readers reason to feel sympathy for your unpleasant protagonist. Maybe his father is a real monster, or he has some other horrible things going on in his life that would explain why he is making such bad choices himself. These sympathy points might be a good way to clue the reader in to anticipate his redemption, and give them a reason not to abandon the protagonist.

  • +1, but I don't think this will work for me. My main character is kind of isolated (due largely to him being a jerk). If he has a friend close enough to him to be a Watson to his Sherlock, it changes his entire story arc. I've also tried using an omniscient narrator, and if anything, that makes it all worse rather than better. – Chris Sunami Oct 22 '18 at 17:33
  • That does make things more difficult. It's hard to do character development in isolation. Does he have a pet? That might be a way to present him as more sympathetic. He might not like or relate to other people, but how about how he treats his dog? People will forgive a lot of bad behavior in those who treat animals well. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Oct 23 '18 at 17:49
  • I had considered that briefly, but maybe I'll give it some more thought. After all, it worked for Ally Sheedy – Chris Sunami Oct 23 '18 at 20:19
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Why tone him down at all? Some jerks are just jerks. I have a friend who thinks he is enlightened and self aware, but is sexist and racist.

Changing POV need not mean giving him a friend, it could be someone who has either known him for years but not been noticed by him or is new to the area and watches the way this irksome fool treats people.

Maybe he has bought into all of the bull and thinks stereotypes hold a kernel of truth. Maybe something happened to his family, job loss and replacement by a minority.

If readers are more invested once he mellows, it sounds like he needs some virtues. Maybe he helps feed the poor, works at an animal rescue, thinks domestic abuse is vile because he has seen it up close and personal.

His scars help make him who he is, add dimension but do not prevent him from learning a lesson or two.

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