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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? (Or, in the case of our man Snape, to see that he really *is* the protagonist?)

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 17 or so. 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 loveable. 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 “likeable”. 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.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 20th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
The story I am writing at the moment started off with me giving myself this as a challenge: write a really likable character who also happenes to be a totally unrepenant nazi. Took me two years to work out how I might do it.
Aug. 21st, 2009 06:55 am (UTC)
NIIIIIIIIIIICK. NIIIIIIIIIICK. ...alright I might &hearts him just a little.
Aug. 21st, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
You have good taste, woman!

I'm really wondering now what on earth Brennan will do for a sequel. But one thing is certain: we will hear more about Nick. )
Aug. 22nd, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)
I've been reading her fic before she became a published author and I wrote my final paper for my fanfic class about her and a few other fans who have also been published. You might say that I've been waiting for this book for a while.
Aug. 21st, 2009 09:32 am (UTC)
They both sound very interesting and I'll look out for them if my life gets a little less crazy.

For me, it has to go beyond like or dislike. I have to see a development in the character, good or bad, to like him. That way, I can like, even love, very evil characters who are out to do bad things and either fail spectacularly (relief) or succeed (fear, worry). They may be redeemable or not otherwise.

The good ones need flaws, as you pointed out. People just aren't black and white, the grey areas make them interesting. It's the temptation for both, the good and the bad, to go a different direction that makes a story. I don't like boring characters. And if a story has protagonists I don't like as persons, I want at least some interesting secondary characters to care for.
Aug. 21st, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
Well, yes. Movement is necessary - character growth, in one direction or another. As I get older, I have to admit I'm attracted to happy stories. Sometimes one just wants niceness. But, all the same, one never wants boredom. Characters without journeys, and without shades of gray, are boring.

I'll be interested to know what you think of these books, if you read them. BTW, the last book in Michelle Paver's "Chronicles of Ancient Darkness" came out yesterday in the U.K., and already had a rave review. I'd love to get people reading that series, too!
Aug. 22nd, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC)
Very interesting - and another two on the list of books I must get round to reading some day!

I think you are perhaps being a little hard on the Amazon reviewers - we don't all have to like the same books or the same people. And they might well have been very young: despite what everyone always says about young people being very open-minded, I was certainly very priggish as a teenager, and I know many others who were too - it is quite hard to get past the conditioning that a drug user, say, or someone who is racist, or very violent or promiscuous, is a 'bad' person. Of course, it is the good author's business to get you to sympathize with someone you might not normally like - but perhaps in this case the reader was simply too young.

As an adult, sadly, it is now the authors who tend to seem priggish to me - often on very 'politically correct' grounds. My heart sinks at the inevitable feisty heroine with whom I am supposed to identify, or at the novel (or film - like 'Titanic') where all the rich people are villains while the poor have hearts of gold. I think that the novels that work best are the ones where the authors believe in their characters - as many of them as possible - take them seriously and let their story follow its natural course, even if they do not like one another.
Sep. 5th, 2009 03:54 am (UTC)
You're quite right to remind me that some of the readers and reviewers on amazon are very young - and, in any case, we can't all like the same books! Your last paragraph is a great warning/advice to us aspiring authors, too.

But I do think there is a difference between a character being likable and lovable. Really, I just wanted to emphasize that I found both Nick and Cal lovable even though they might initially be hard to like.

Sorry it took me so long to respond - I seem to have pulled a muscle (getting better now) and literally couldn't sit at the computer for two days. I couldn't sit down! Can you imagine?
Sep. 8th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry to hear about your pulled muscle - how dreadful not being able to sit at the computer for two days! Thank you for taking the trouble to answer me!

And yes, I quite agree with you about the difference between a character being likeable and loveable.
Aug. 23rd, 2009 01:42 am (UTC)
If it makes you feel better
I've got a library hold on a couple of your recent recs--and have just picked up to reread a couple of Green Knowes...

So I'll look at these, and won't comment until I do.

Except to mention--a retelling of PERCIVAL by someone named Fisher?
Sep. 5th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
Re: If it makes you feel better
It does, actually. That last sentence made Deirdre and me laugh; you are so clever. )
Aug. 26th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
Amen. I don't actually think I've got anything to add, other than it seems to be a summer of Corbenic - which can, of course, only be considered a good thing.
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:03 am (UTC)
Is it? I'm late getting to the book; it's been out a couple of years, hasn't it? But that is a good thing, if more people are also reading it this summer!
Aug. 30th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
I don't have to like the protagonists. I need to care about what they do. I've taken a few literature courses and some of the most irrepentant, boring, flotsam-like characters reside in the Modernist stories, IMO. As ever, I'm thinking about Sister Carrie. I didn't care what happened to Carrie and her men. They were nothing. Despite success, despite tragedy, despite situations that might have driven a dramatic plot, they stagnated. I didn't care about them or about what they did. I only ended up despising the lot of them (Hurstwood least of all but still, an unrealized potential).

The characters must engage me or the book's worthless. I have to care.
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:01 am (UTC)
Well, yes. But the question is, then: what makes you care about a character? I do think I have to be able to relate to them, somehow, even if on the surface they seem unlikable or even alien. And somehow I had little problem relating to Cal, and none at all with Nick. But that doesn't mean I entirely liked them.

Your comment is also reminding me - I felt exactly that way about Harry in DH - especially after Snape's death. I just didn't care at all what happened to him. There was, as it were, no there there. Nick and Cal have very serious problems AND very strong emotional reactions to those problems. Harry's just a zombie, at least in DH. He doesn't seem to react normally at all - at least, not as far as I can see. It's hard to empathize with a character who seems to lack normal emotions. So maybe that's part of it?
Sep. 1st, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)
All fantasy fans – read these books! You won’t be sorry.
I followed your advice. You know you've been straining my budget for years now with your recommendations. ;)
Thank you for breaking the curse that has been hanging over my head for more than 2 years. I used to be an avid and fast reader all my life, but since summer 2007 I haven't managed to finish a single book in one go. It seemed I was afraid of being drawn into the story again, afraid of caring too much. It has been a sickening experience.
Relying on your statement that the protagonists are not too likable,I just started reading and it worked. I'm looking forward to get through the other books piling on my bedside table for ages from now on.

BTW I don't find Nick unlikable; I figured out what his problem might be pretty early into the book. He's remarkably nice and human under the circumstances. Cal is actually more likable than his original; Perceval has never been a hero I could care about, it's the story only that gets me through. When it comes to Arthurian knights, Gawaine has always been my favourite.

In general I think books can be seen as pie charts with characters and plot as the largest pieces. If the characters aren't likable or at least interesting, the story has to be thrilling and vice versa. So I can deal with shallow characters in good story lines or shallow story lines with lovely characters and even with a certain lack of language skill, if the story or characters are worth caring about. OTOH great literary skill without a real story and with unlikable characters don't work at all for me. e.g. I dare to dislike the great German author Thomas Mann; his angry, whining young men are simply getting on my nerves and there isn't any story except their self-inflicted downfall; deadly boring.
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:15 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm so happy that you read them and liked them! What a pity that you got so stymied by the summer of 2007. It didn't stop me reading, but it did (for awhile) make me practically allergic to a certain type of fantasy. A series? About kids learning to control magic? And a "special" youth with a "special" future? No, thank you! I refused to touch any such books with a ten-foot pole. it took me awhile to get over that aversion.

And, if you like Gawain, have you seen what my livejournal friend Sigune is doing with him?

Thomas Mann - I liked "Mario und der Zauberer, and liked "Death in Venice" well enough, and actually loved "Buddenbrooks", mostly because of the figure of Toni - who is a good-hearted and lively woman, if not especially bright. But otherwise, I can't say I've been able to get through one of his novels. Shallow characters in good story lines - I suppose that would be Christie, or books of that sort? What I really like, and look for, is the story growing naturally out of the characters' actions. That's what I'm aiming for in my own writing - I'm not much of a plotter, really. I hope I can pull it off.

BTW, good for you for figuring out Nick! I was thinking: Asperger's? No, not quite, but there is something seriously wrong with the way this kid thinks - and certain aspects of it do fit autism spectrum disorders. I should have guessed when he was on the boat; I did guess slightly later. But it took me awhile. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the sequel, at any rate.

Another thing I really liked about The Demon's Lexicon; as with the Bartimaeus books, magic is not a good thing!
Dec. 3rd, 2009 12:40 am (UTC)
Well said. I have not read either book, they are on my list of books to read. I do like characters to have conflict and tension around them. Real people have flaws, characters should also. The only thing that frustrates me is if the character never seems to learn, grow. I'm not saying they need to be Pollyanna at the end, they just need to grow. Seeing anyone (real or fictional) continue to make the same dumb mistakes is tiring.

Edited at 2009-12-03 12:40 am (UTC)
Dec. 3rd, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
Oh, I agree with you about the need for growth! Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed my post.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


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