Pretty on the Inside

Death’s Excellent Vacation is debuting on the New York Times Bestseller List at #8 for Hardcover Fiction.  That’s just awesome, and once again, I have to thank all the people involved in this anthology who thought of including me.  It’s a great opportunity, and I just hope they know how much I appreciate it.

So what makes a likable character?  What makes an interesting character?  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because, more and more, I keep coming across reviews on my work that mention I have a tendency toward unlikable characters.  This is a bit of a surprise to me since I tend to like my characters.

I get why some of my characters might be deemed rough around the edges.  Earl the vampire of Gil’s All Fright Diner is a grumpy dude who swears like mad, qualities many might find unpalatable.  Although he does get happier as the story progresses, and by the end, he’s not nearly as foul-mouthed or obnoxious.  Monster from Monster is indeed a jerk with a poor attitude and without an ounce of personal growth throughout his adventure.  But that was deliberate, and I expected some negative reaction to him.

But what about the rest?

I like them.  Duke of Gil’s is a great guy.  I mean that.  He’s just a great guy, all the way around.  He might not be the most charismatic character, but he’s quiet, thoughtful, powerful, a reliable friend.  Never Dead Ned (In the Company of Ogres) is a bit of a sadsack, but he isn’t obnoxious or rude.  He’s just adrift.  Miriam, Regina, Frank, Ace, and the rest of the cast are all decent sorts.  And on and on.

I like to think that my characters are normal people (in the most charitable definition of the word) who are just doing what they can to get by.  They might not be the nicest people, although I think they are often unfairly maligned for being frightened and reluctant at times, but at the end of the day, they’re people you can count on.

Nessy (Too Many Curses) and Mack Megaton (The Automatic Detective) are genuinely heroic.  Even noble.

So why are they deemed unlikable?  Why do they carry the label as uninteresting, more often than I really feel they deserve?  I’m not sure, but I have a theory.  It’s ludicrous, I’ll admit.  Even a bit stupid.  But if I was afraid of doing stupid things, I’d have never written a hard-boiled retro-sci-fi detective novel or a story about gods sitting around on the couch.  And I think we all agree how awesome those things turned out.

I think it’s because they’re not good-looking.

Is that fair?  Is that sensible?  No and no.  It doesn’t really make sense.  It’s ridiculous, I admit.  But it’s something that’s worth considering because, at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of stories with unattractive protagonists.  There aren’t even that many with average-looking protagonists.  And if a story is about an unnattractive person, then it’s the defining element of the story.

When was the last time you saw an overweight protagonist where it wasn’t important to the story that they be so?  Why do all the vampire hunting ladies of the urban fantasy genre wear thongs, pose in painted on pants, sporting tramp stamps, looking more like models than monster hunters?  There are no chubby monster hunters, no scrawny heroes, no gawky heroines.  Not many.  Even less if you go by the cover art.

(Kim Harrison describes the protagonist of her The Hollows novels as attractive, but thin and not especially gorgeous.  The covers make her look like a bombshell.)

It’s just so damn stupid that I hesitate to even bring it up.  I get why people enjoy watching attractive people in visual mediums like movies, TV, comic books.  But this notion, if we’ll pretend like it’s true for just a moment, is simply bizarre.

Yet when I look at my characters, I notice that, regardless of personality, they tend not to be traditionally attractive.  Most aren’t even human.  They’re kobolds, robots, bats, fat guys, fat women, scrawny bald vampires, bodiless voices, serpent gods, trolls, paper gnomes, and (coming soon) moon-devouring tentacle gods.  While I like to think of them as a diverse and interesting cast of characters, I wouldn’t call many of them beautiful.

I don’t think their unconventional looks are the only reason they get dismissed as unsympathetic.  I’m sure there’s more to it.  But I can’t help but think this is part of the problem.  It could all be in my head.  I could simply be trying to find justification for an inability to connect with a certain section of the audience.  So chalk it up to an observation that might have merit or might not.

 Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do some quick editing on my super-intelligent space squid from Neptune story.  Because, apparently, that’s how I roll.

And, yes, the space squid is the hero.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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7 Comments

  1. Posted August 12, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I just read your story in “Death’s Excellent Vacation” and loved the whole “Old Gods”, “He who waits” mythos. It was a refreshing change from the standard fare.

  2. Posted August 12, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Now I’m really tempted to pick it up. I love me a good Lovecraft inspired story, and I’d like to see your take on it. I was a little reluctant initially because I’ve grown way tired of the many Anita Blake clones pervading urban fantasy right now. Reading the abbreviated synopsis of the stories someone helpfully posted on an Amazon review, it looks like many of the stories are fairly original and I’ll probably snag it this weekend.

    With respect to the “likability” of characters… I find most of your characters very likable. I think part of the reason I like them is that they aren’t super special, but neither are they shattered husks of a person that can barely function. They sit somewhere in the middle, where all of us real people do. While I find that refreshing; I guess if you were going in looking for the “chosen one”, or a hero/heroine who is smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, and braver than everyone else, its a turn off.

  3. Brian Jones
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Lee, smutty little Phillies is what many people want to see. Let’s face it half naked women draw our eyes like iron filings to a magnet; I’m not saying it’s right in fact it’s annoying. Honestly it’s addictive, I remember coming out of a movie I couldn’t tell you what it was but it was PG. I remember that there wasn’t any half naked women or sexual innuendos. Truthfully I came out a bit disappointed.
    It was then that I realized that having constant sexual stimuli was addictive and I don’t even mean porn. I seriously had to step back and reassess what I was watching. Fat hairy protagonists is cutting people off of their sex fix. I’ll get off of my box but other than your protagonists the only other person I heard of having unlikely heroes other than Tolkien was Donaldson.
    I’m out.

  4. Will
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… The protagonists in the print fiction I am reading are not particularly attractive, to the best of my recollection. Bren Cameron (Cherryh, Foreigner series) is drawn that way, but he’s a pale midget to the company he keeps. Priscilla Hutchins (McDevitt) is a looker, but she’s black. To turn the argument around, the difficulty in making a non-human the protagonist is that they should be both sympathetic & alien.

  5. Posted August 13, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    I like eye candy. Guilty. Sorry about that.

    But I like average looking people too. And smart people. And ugly but smart people. And genius guys with six packs. And fat jerks. And aliens. And robots. And…

    But yeah, I think the average person is comfortable with pretty. Guess you’ll have to keep fighting the outer appearance machine.

  6. Bradley
    Posted August 17, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    “I wondered, after I submitted it, if perhaps it might have been
    better to write something related to what I’d already written.”

    I think it’s more likely that people are going to want to read a
    bigger story featuring Vance and Phillip.

    Hopefully they’re the kind of people that will still enjoy a books with a robot, werewolf, kobold, or
    monster detective instead.

  7. Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi,

    I just finished reading The Innsmouth Nook and wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed it. I haven’t read any of your other work before (I know, what planet am I on) but I look forward to catching up with the rest of your work.

    Thanks a lot for a very entertaining story, have a great day.

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