Have you ever written a negative character? What about a negative protagonist? Most writers agree that a character must have flaws. Flaws make a character relatable and grounded. They have her come to life like our own sometimes blundering self. But how deep can those flaws go? What if a character is so entrenched in her goals that she exhibits behavior we wouldn’t expect from a ‘hero’? What if she isn’t an aspiration to the reader? Would you stick to reading such a character past the first chapter?
Sometimes in our life, we show negative shades. We might shout at kids, though it isn’t done, or maybe even react badly to irritations. We might forego others’ needs when we’re caught in our own passions and interests. But we forgive ourselves and move on. Make at times valid and most of the time empty excuses. Mostly these incidents are harmless and understood by people around us. There might be some amount of bad vibrations but mostly the dust settles down.
But in a book, especially a romance novella, do authors have the flexibility to have characters show negative behavior? The heroine, particularly? Recently I read a book in which the heroine was guilty of being unfaithful, not to the hero but her ex. Could anything justify that? I thought it wasn’t done convincingly but the issue was intriguing because of the author’s attempt to explore norms and go beyond the boundaries. That’s the thing about fiction, it’s ever-changing and may have no set black-and-white. Wuthering Heights sets a prime example of characters with less than pleasant shades.
But relating to the category novels, again I’m faced with the question, can it work there? Has the time come to have less beautiful heroines and less perfectly physiqued heroes? But romance novels are more or less fantasy reads, aren’t they? How much can you tamper with fantasy to have a convincing, believable story yet keep that feel-good, oxytocin-inducing elements alive?
Negative traits are hard to accept, be it in people, fiction or romantic fiction. In my view, here’s how you can make it work.
Redemption : If a character finds the true path at the end, their journey through all the error-riddled arc might even be fun to read. It becomes a part of the character’s voyage to discover their true side and hence promises the reader stark optimism, making then stick with the character. But be careful, such a redemption should be hinted at throughout the story. You just can’t morph Joker into Batman all of a sudden.
Positive intermixed with negative: If you have a heroine who wears animal furs, maybe you could balance it with her being devoted to charity work. A protagonist is made up of a mixture of positive and negative so while we disparage the negative we can cheer the positive. Of course the argument remains. How negative? In the above example, I can’t sympathize with the animal killing. Would you?
A plausible past: The character has a reason for being the way they are. That works well to explain their bad side. Past hurts might cause them to behave in this way. In the above example, say, yes, she wears furs but the story might be set in olden times and maybe the heroine thinks of the luxurious fur as symbolic of how far she has come from being a daughter of a slave family. So, speaking for myself, while I can’t really love the character, maybe I can understand and sympathize with her here. What do you think?

I’ve recently finished a rough draft of a novel where the heroine is more negative than positive. She places more value on her goals than even relationships. She’s single minded about following those goals. Which in this instance is not a good thing. And so she must realize. For those who have read my first book Bollywood Fiancé For A Day, this character is a spin-off from the character of Mia in it. If you know Mia, you’ll agree on the quandary I face in making her a protagonist. In the debut book, she isn’t meant to evoke the readers’ sympathy and in fact any editor would advise not to put such a protagonist in a story. But somehow this story happened. One of those where the Muse takes charge and you listen to the story unfold and just put it down. Will I find a place in publishing for this book? In romantic stories, there’s so little scope for negatives. Characters are supposed to be inspiring. Heroines face troubles and heroes take advantage of the opportunity to come close to them. Of course things are changing. But how much?
I’ll keep you posted on what happens with Mia’s story.

What’s your take on negative characters? Do you find Heathcliff and Catherine fascinating or repulsive? Would you write a negative character as protagonist?  Are negative characters ever redeemable? What about negative heroines? Do they have a place in romantic fiction? Would love to hear from you.


Comments on: "Writing a negative protagonist – Three tips" (5)

  1. Thought-provoking post, Ruchi! It’s often said that if you want the reader to root for the protagonist, she must be likeable. So basically it comes down to how “flawed” the protagonist is and how convincing or believable her character arc/growth is. Writing a protagonist with negative shades will definitely challenge the best of writers. My take is that if you are writing popular romance fiction, stick to shades of grey for the protagonist. But if you are writing dark/edgy fiction, you can perhaps push the envelope a lot more. I’m definitely looking forward to reading about Mia! 🙂

    • Thanks, Adite. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this post. Your input is quite helpful. I agree with the shades of grey reference but, if you excuse the pun, there are more than fifty shades of grey.Choosing which your protagonist will wear is the problem. The ‘hero’ is expected to be heroic, true but her journey is also about overcoming internal flaws. So as you said, it all comes down to how convincing you can make it. Does the motivation justify the action? But I guess that’s the topic for another post!
      Thanks for sharing your views 🙂

  2. Interesting post! I think characters can have some negative traits, if done well it can help make them more rounded and believable – but it can be a fine line as I think if the reader struggles to relate to them then they can lose interest or not get involved enough to care about what happens to them. Personally I try and look at reasons for the negativity – so it might be ignorance on a situation, past bad experiences etc and if so can they develop and grow during the story. I’ve just started a book and the hero is actually the ‘villain’ from my last one – certainly wasn’t planning on that so it’s going to be a challenge to see how it comes out! Look forward to reading yours 🙂

  3. I find Heathcliff and Catherine fascinating! I might be in the minority, but on a whole, I’m not as judgmental about my protagonists as some. I like to see a learning arch. And as long as they are interesting and their behaviors ring true, I’m okay with not loving them.

    • I agree, Suzanne. Though not partial to Heathcliff, I too like the characters who are not all golden to start with and find redemption. In my book You Can’t Fight A Royal Attraction, the heroine has made many mistakes and is paying for them but eventually comes into her own.

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