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.