Writing About the Difficult Protagonist by Barry Eisler
I met Barry Eisler at RT 2009. I was sure I wasn’t going to like him. I mean, here he was at RT, a male author amongst a cavalcade of women, with his long hair and shiny white teeth. But I actually got to sit down and talk with Barry and he’s a pretty interesting person. His background is varied: CIA special operative, former IP lawyer, now writer and most importantly father and husband. Plus, I enjoyed listening to him talk about the process of writing which, to him, involves craft as much as inspiration.
I asked if he would allow me to post a piece about writing and in return I promised to post it near the release date of his newest book,Inside Out: A Novel, a fictional book that at times seems more fact than the newspaper reports. The protagonist in the Rain series is an assassin, an anti hero. How can we cheer for a guy who kills others for a living? The following is Barry’s theory. Got a different one or agree? Leave a comment.
I have an odd habit of writing protagonists who are killers-‘assassins, black ops soldiers, rogue spies, femme fatales (actually, I guess that would be femmes fatale?). The books are doing reasonably well, so all the killing seems not to be turning people off. This must mean either that the public is exceptionally depraved, or that I'm writing my characters in a way that makes them engaging and sympathetic despite what they do. I don't know that I could offer any useful thoughts on public taste (other than to wonder: did they really need to do a remake of I Spit On Your Grave?), so I'll stick to some thoughts on craft: specifically, how do you make readers care about a protagonist who they should in fact be expected to despise?
I'll focus on my series character John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American assassin whose specialty is making it look like natural causes, because if you can make a contract killer sympathetic, your only remaining challenge is probably robocallers and people who talk on cell phones in elevators. What's the secret?
First, you have to remember that when we experience a character in a novel, we experience him or her not in isolation, but rather by reference to his or her surroundings. So Rain may be a bad man, but within the corrupt, duplicitous world in which he finds himself, he's actually pretty good. He has a code (no women or children, no acts against non-principals); he has a conscience (he's troubled by some of what he does); he's good to his few friends (Harry and Tatsu). This relativity allows us to like Rain. By the way, I think the best example of this way of making a bad guy into the good guy is Mario Puzo's The Godfather, where the Don comes across as the most admirable character in the book. Sure, he's an organized crime boss and murderer, but within the book's overall setting that's all just a given. What really matters is that the Don is a family man, is straight-laced about sex, won't sell drugs, and is relied on and trusted by his community. In a sense, Puzo turns upside down the ordinary moral universe that we take for granted-‘an amazing case of authorial slight of hand.
Also, at times you get a peek at Rain's past-‘his initial killing experience in Vietnam, for example-‘which makes him much more real to the reader. Real means understandable, and understandable means, possibly, sympathetic. You come to understand not only the events that have shaped Rain; you also are privy to his thoughts and feelings about these events-‘his guilt, his remorse, his regret. Hopefully one comes away from this with a sense that, despite the exterior dissimilarities, Rain is not so different from you or I. After all, he has a conscience, he's troubled by things he's done, he's lonely, he wants to be part of something larger than himself but doesn't know how-‘feelings common to all of us, in which we recognize our common humanity.
In addition to these elements, killers like Rain are appealing because they fulfill (in a safe, fictional environment) certain anti-social wishes that all of us possess. Think about a character like Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, who's so enthralling that by his third appearance, in Hannibal, we're cheering him on! In part, our enthusiasm for Hannibal is a function, again, of the degraded moral universe in which Harris places him (corrupt, incompetent FBI agents; venal, scheming prison administrators; depraved, vicious pursuers); partly, again, it's a function of Hannibal's (admittedly minimal) code of conduct (by his third novelistic appearance he's pretty much only eating the rude or otherwise had-it-coming-to-them). But there's something else going on here, I think: we like Hannibal because we want to be like him. Not that we want to be cannibals, but at some level we do wish we could free ourselves from the rules with which society has surrounded us, we wish we could just do as we please and the hell with the consequences. Wish-fulfillment is part of the allure of evil characters like Hannibal, and there's some of this going on with Rain, too. If you cross Rain, he's doesn't complain about it, he doesn't sue you, he doesn't check into an anger management program. He kills you. Anyone who's ever dealt with irritating coworkers, rude drivers, or any of the thousands of other annoyances of daily life can't help but feel that "damn, that would be kind of nice."
So overall, I think it pays to do two things when you're trying to make an unsympathetic character sympathetic. First, place that character in a universe where, by comparison, he or she looks good. Second, explore the character's inner world. Open up aspects of your character's psyche that readers can relate to. Real villains never think of themselves as villains-‘they think they're the hero, and difficult protagonists think they're the good guy, too. Why do they think that? What's their basis? Explore that, and you'll be heading in the right direction.
I hope that was helpful, and would love to hear from anyone else who's faced similar challenges in making a difficult protagonist sympathetic how you've gone about it. And what works for you, or doesn't work for you, as readers? Any difficult protagonists you've loved despite yourself, or who've turned you off despite the author's efforts? And any thoughts on why? Looking forward to a good discussion-‘thanks.