Friday, April 1, 2011

Busted!—Janet Fitch caught championing an unlikable protagonist

Unlikeable protagonists are commonplace these days. Why? Maybe writers took the advice that their characters should be flawed and ran away with it. Or maybe, with so many of the educated middle class out of work, losing their homes, or in over their heads in credit card debt, we writers are looking for a new kind of hero. Someone even worse off, who found the strength to make a difference.

To make that work you must get your reader to bond with this character. How do you do that?

Janet Fitch, in her opening to Paint it Black, introduces us to Josie Tyrell, a teen runaway. Josie cusses a lot. To earn a sparse living, she poses nude for artists. She does a lot of drugs. She lives in a shack with her Harvard-dropout boyfriend who is a painter. Does this sound like someone you’d want to spend 387 pages with?

Fitch works to win our loyalty to Josie sentence after sentence, while building toward a shocking moment, eight pages in, that will change Josie’s life forever. Fitch knows the modern reader is inured to shocking events; in order to achieve the effect she desires, she must make sure that by that eighth page we not only empathize with Josie, we feel a little bit protective of her. Let’s look at how she does it.

1. When we meet Josie, cold is numbing body parts just beyond the reach of the studio’s space heater and Josie’s leg has fallen asleep. Already we sense inner conflict, as Josie’s discomfort is both apparent and irrelevant: “She twisted her slight torso, enough to release the tension, but not enough to disturb the painter…”

2. Fitch ties the painter’s tears to the loss of John Lennon, who had just been shot. This underscores the artist’s entitlement to express, and ties the reader to an emotional memory of Lennon’s loss.

3. While Josie gets stoned with the artist, she personalizes the Lennon headlines while showing that Josie cares about her druggie friends:
Josie felt worse about Darby Crash. Darby had just killed himself in an act of desperate theater, a gesture swamped by the Beatle’s death like a raft in the backwash of a battleship. But at least she’d known him with his shyness, his broken-toothed smile.
4. In the way that her desire for fashion conflicts with her means, we sense Josie’s desperate pride as she dresses:
She put her clothes back on—a vintage dress she’d traded for a domino bracelet, torn leggings—and worked her feet into spike-heeled pumps from Goodwill.
5. She shows Josie—who might be nothing like the reader—making a reasonable reaction to a relatable mistake:
It was normally a three-minute drive, but she hit a line of cars with their lights on. Why were they going so slow? Maybe another John Lennon thing. She honked, wove, and passed until she got to the front and saw it was a hearse. Mortified, she turned off onto a side street and stopped, red-faced.
By this point Fitch has taken five steps to help you relate to her unlikable character. That's more effort than many rookie authors would expend. Are you intrigued yet—enough to follow her entire trajectory?

Fitch doesn't count on it. Check back tomorrow for seven more ways this savvy author bonds us to her character.

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."


  1. Good points. Those little telling details can do so much toward endearing a character. Look forward to what you have to say tomorrow.

  2. Thanks Maryann. I currently have a client who is a retired research scientist and he's written a novel without ever taking a class or going to a conference--and so far, I'm loving it. Used to working alone, this is the education he undertook: he analyzed bestselling and classic novels to see how they worked!

  3. Great post! Janet Fitch does an amazing job with Paint It Black. It's so beautiful and gritty and lyrical--and sooo dark. I was pulled into the story, but had to put it down until I'm in the right mental place to appreciate its genius.

  4. Annette: Yes, definitely dark! Yet not without hope. I once heard Fitch say that she rewrites until every turn of phrase sounds original, like nothing else she's ever read. You mentioned "lyrical"--indeed, she works the words like a poet would. Her added effort shows.

  5. Oh, I so want to read this now!

  6. Sarah: After tomorrow's post your desire will intensify...

  7. Sounds like Fitch has a brilliant touch of creating out-of-the-ordinary characters.


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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