I often write about the importance of creating characters who are redemptive. A recent article in The Atlantic pointed exclusively to female protagonists. Indeed, “Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable” implies that a character’s potential for acceptability involves gender.
I found the material about as sophomoric as it gets. To be fair, I’m certain the author would determine my detritus to be even less inspiring. However, to suggest gender with respect to one or the other capturing an audience, in my opinion, is ludicrous. I ask, what about Hannibal Lector or a plethora of Jack Nicholson’s characters? I cannot help but believe that readers gravitate to characters because they empower self-actualization at its vicarious best. Gender couldn’t be further from the equation.
The answer lies deep within the darkest recesses of the mind. For example, Thomas Harris’s character(s) brought out the idea of the enormous vainglory inherit with ultimate hedonism. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of people have receptors in their brains that shut down at a certain point. And everything returns to whatever normal self-control happens to be for most folks.
Yet for a millisecond or two even the most soft-spoken, passive human gets caught up in Lector’s or Buffalo Bill’s temporal invincibility. No different from buying a nice pair of deck shoes and walking down the docks at a boat show. For a couple of hours those 50-million-dollar behemoths seem in reach.
People crave vicarious thrills. And the ability to create a patently unlikable character who engages the reader is pure magic. In the most basic of explanations, it’s the character(s) who creates the conflict that sells the story. And a protagonist can be just as evil as an antagonist can be pious, selfless, and non-offending.
However, a difference exists between the writer’s treatment of a protagonist or of an antagonist. Of greatest importance, a redemptive protagonist requires constant massaging. He or she can’t have bad breath, swear like a sailor, kick the cat, spit, or possess any of the uncountable traits people universally despise. Conversely, the reader often fixates on an antagonist who possesses virtually any flaw. The gender of the protagonist or antagonist has no relevance.
In many scenarios, the more sinister the character the more the reader gets caught up in hating the image. And of course the reader can’t put down the book until finding out what happens to that awful character. Ah, the beauty of it all, and gender is a nonissue.