Saturday, April 2, 2011

Busted!—Janet Fitch and her unlikable character, Part 2

In yesterday's post we took a look at five ways author Janet Fitch tries to win our support for unlikable protagonist Josie Tyrell in her novel Paint it Black (if you follow this link to you can use their "Look Inside" function to see several of these pages). Fitch doesn't stop at five, however—Fitch imbues every single line with something that helps engage the reader as her character moves toward that moment, eight pages in, where her life will change forever.

Here I'd like to highlight seven more techniques you can imitate to curry favor for your own difficult protagonist.

6. Fitch grounds this off-beat character in familiar domestic bliss:
She opened the door, threw her key in the red bowl, and called out, “Hey, Michael?”
7. Then, a one-word sentence:
Uh-oh, what’s wrong? We learn that Michael, for the first time ever, had needed “space” to paint and has left for a few days.

8. In this next excerpt, from backstory, remembered sensory images create intensity. The last one—an incomplete fragment—causes the reader some discomfort. The absence of those images now suggests emptiness. Plus, Fitch achieves relationship by proxy: Michael had loved Josie, so we can, too.
She held on to him, her eyes closed, drinking in his smell, pine and moss and some peculiar chemistry of his own, that she craved the way an addict craved freebase. She could lick him like candy. He held her for the longest time, crushing her to him, his scratchy beard.
9. We learn that Josie is capable of taking action to get what she wants: if Michael doesn’t call soon, she’s going after him.

10. We learn that Josie is unprepared for the challenges to come when she describes the artifice in one of Michael's paintings: he's pictured her by the stove but he was the cook, she only knew how to heat soup.

11. Josie’s reaction when the phone rings is immediate, and speaks louder than inner monologue:
Flinging herself out of bed so fast her head reeled, she got to the phone and grabbed it before the third ring. “Michael, thank God, I—”

12. We’re pretty sure this won’t be Michael calling, and yet we hope we’re wrong when we hear: “Excuse me, this is Inspector Brooks…” At this moment we readers know we are fully on board.

To invite your reader to bond with an unlikable protagonist, reveal the tender heart of that character’s inner conflict and set the hook by making those feelings relatable through your use of setting, well-chosen inner monologue, sense imagery, and events from their everyday world. Then reel us in while moving, sentence by sentence, toward the inciting incident.

Do you have an unlikable protagonist? How have you made him/her relatable?
Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. I don't think I've written an unlikeable protagonist. Wait, wait, I take that back. I have. I wrote a manuscript where the antagonist was the main character. I didn't want readers to like him. I did want them to be fascinated by him.

  2. How did I find myself rooting for the wretched Hannibal Lector? Not that was sheer genius on someone's part. Thanks for the link!

  3. OK, now I REALLY have to read this book!

  4. I read Paint it Black and enjoyed it. Fitch is a great author.

    I love the way you break this reader affectation down into well-made points. Good lesson, even if we don't have unlikeable characers. Using these techniques can make our readers feel the way we want them to feel. Thanks for writing this!

  5. This has been a great two-parter, Kathryn. Great tips and examples on how to let details define the character and endear them.

  6. What compelling posts! You've given each one of us who claims to be a writer some serious thoughts to ponder. Your skill as a developmental editor shines through in your discussion of this book and its unlikeable protagonist.

  7. Helen: I would imagine a writer might use some of the same techniques to get a reader fascinated in an antagonist as well. If he's truly despicable, for example, giving him moments of "domestic bliss" would round him out. Did you use any of these techniques?

    And Yvonne: Hey, everyone's got to eat! ;)

  8. Bettyann: Believe it or not, I did read this book for pleasure. Only later I thought, "How did Fitch get me to care for the trajectory of what at first seemed this pathetic character?" So I went back to see.

    But you are so right--we fiction writers cannot that even admirable characters are instantly relatable. We've got to work to earn the reader's investment.

  9. Great post, Kathryn.
    I have an unlikable character in my latest story. Your incites and tips have been a great help.

    As an example of an unlikable protagonist, I think of Lisbeth Salander in 'The girl with the Dragon tatoo'. Somehow we learn to like her, faults and all.

  10. I actually do not feel this worked, because her protagonist remained unlikeable to me. Well, I shouldn't say unlikeable so much as .... bland, and I could not relate to the character.

    I certainly think though that the touches of trying to make her more likable did not work for me because I was interested more in Josie's past and her family, and the echos of her childhood are very much drowned out by the whole Michael ordeal. It is very hard to relate to a protagonist who is nearly always drunk and high, always and enveloped in a fog. Her circumstances for being so are understandable, but the redemption came too late for me, and it felt very minor (the end, at 29 Palms). I do wish there would have been more depth with Josie.

    I do love Janet Fitch's prose and writing in general. She is fantastic. White Oleander was amazing. Maybe it is unfair to compare Black to White in this case, but it can't be helped. Characters were much more fleshed out in the former book.

    My humble opinion.....


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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