The main character of my urban fantasy series is an alcoholic.
Specifically, she’s an attractive, wealthy, privileged alcoholic with a snark problem and an attitude. She’s definitely not the nicest character in the library, and to use the b-word to describe her might be just.
Okay, I’ll just say it. She’s kind of a bitch.
Why on earth would I write such a person, you say? When the role of the novelist is to inspire reaching minds to wondrous heights? When, in the truly good novel, the good must end happily and the bad unhappily?
The truth is, unlikable characters are just more fun.
We don’t live in the 1700s nowadays (in case you hadn’t noticed). The role of the novel is not to teach and inform—unless, perhaps, you’re writing for children. Even then, a moral is worth about as much as the time we spend listening to those who preach at us: very little. Main characters are no longer role models, inspiring us to act as the moralizing hero of a three-volume novel would have done.
Nope, memorable main characters are those we can identify with, those who make us laugh, those who shock us and make us cry. Think about it: Macbeth, Becky Sharpe, Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby, Harry Dresden, Starbuck. We love characters with flaws. If they’re too perfect, they’re a snooze.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of why I would ever write a bitchy female protagonist—and why in all reason I would describe her as such.
I’m going to fall back on a quote from Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery, a book about a character who (heaven forbid) actually serves as a role model:
“Anyhow,” resumed the merciless Mr. Harrison, “I don’t see why MAURICE LENNOX didn’t get her. He was twice the man the other is. He did bad things, but he did them. Perceval hadn’t time for anything but mooning.”
“Mooning.” That was even worse than “pitching!”
“MAURICE LENNOX was the villain,” said Anne indignantly. “I don’t see why every one likes him better than PERCEVAL.”
“Perceval is too good. He’s aggravating. Next time you write about a hero put a little spice of human nature in him.”
“AVERIL couldn’t have married MAURICE. He was bad.”
“She’d have reformed him. You can reform a man; you can’t reform a jelly-fish, of course. Your story isn’t bad — it’s kind of interesting, I’ll admit. But you’re too young to write a story that would be worth while. Wait ten years.”
Poor perfect Anne had to learn that a too-perfect character is a nuisance to your readers. (Of course, while Anne herself could be a role model, she also has her flaws and quirks.) We all like a little spice of human nature. But why get so spicy that even I, her creator, refer to my main character as a bitch?
It’s much as good old Mr. Harrison said: when you start at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. Reform is far more interesting than bland acceptance. A flawed character must grow and change. She has the most to learn from her struggles, and while her journey is rocky, it’s all the more suspense-filled.
I’m not writing to suggest that my readers should become my main character. No, I’d rather my readers see that even the most addicted, smart-mouthed, struggling detective can transform into a strong, powerful woman who can overcome her own demons. Is she worthy of emulation? No. Is she worth reading? I think so. Is she entertaining? Hell, yes.
It’s amusing to watch her struggle. We can laugh at her outrageous snark. We can feel frustration at her bad choices. And we can see a little of ourselves in the things we would never do but wish we could and in the adversities we hope to conquer and never will.
The lovable rogue. The antihero. The bitch, the jerk, the ass. We don’t want to be ’em, but we sure do love ’em.