Is it okay to dislike your protagonist?

This question was raised on facebook the other day and I have to admit that up until I saw it, I hadn’t given it a thought. I’d always assumed that your main protagonist was someone who you must always love. The question as to whether you can dislike them or not had never entered my head but now it has, I can’t decide. Sometimes the answer is simple; if your protagonist is a nice guy/gal who is always helping people, humble, honourable and gorgeous to boot, then it’s going to be easy to love them but what if your protagonist is a murderer?

Suppose you wrote a novel about a serial killer or some other unwashed fruit loop and their adventures; would it be wrong to dislike them? After all, you would very probably dislike such a person if you met them in real life, so why not dislike them as a fictional character? Is it okay to have a protagonist who is an unlikeable character or must they always be nice? I really feel that there’s no reason why one shouldn’t write a novel with a nasty protagonist; they have stories to tell too. The thing is, would such a book sell?

I suppose the feeling is that if the protagonist is someone you don’t like, then readers won’t want to read the book but is this true? Are readers so superficial that they won’t read a book if they don’t fall in love with my protagonist? I feel the answer is probably yes, readers tend to be that superficial and they want to like the characters and I guess that is why the bad guy is always a secondary protagonist rather than the main event. There is of course, another way of looking at this. As in real life, we may be disgusted by the actions and lives of serial killers, but we are also fascinated by them, so maybe such a book would sell?

What are your thoughts? Add your blog link in the comments and join the debate.

What’s in a name?

As writers, one thing that’s central to our work is people. Our books have people in them and people have names so the characters in our books must have names too, as should the places, animals, plants and objects we fill our imaginary worlds with. Now, unless you’re writing a factual non-fiction book, the world contained within your book will be an invention; a product of your own mind and creativity and this means that you will have to invent all of the names. If your book is based somewhere that actually exists, such as planet Earth, then many of the names will already be decided; you can’t go inventing a new breed of animal or plant on Earth unless your story centres around someone who does. In this case you will probably only need to invent the names of the places and the people and your job will be relatively easy because you will be able to choose your names to fit in with the culture, belief system and racial environment in which your story is based. People like myself who write science fiction and/or fantasy stories have to invent everything and this is both an enormous pleasure and a bit of a pain.

The Lilean Chronicles series is what used to be called space opera but is now just science fiction/fantasy with a paranormal/spiritual thread and my stories all contain space travel and visits to many different planets and races of beings, all of which require names. Then there are the creatures and plants that inhabit these worlds alongside the ‘sentient beings’ who are the central characters; all of these need names too unless I just skim over them in the story. A lot of the time I can do just that, but now and again one of these creatures or plants takes a more central role for a paragraph or two, and then they need a name unless not knowing the name becomes a part of the story. Lastly there is the ‘hardware’ that the characters use in the stories; the vehicles, gadgets, gizmos, weapons, medicines etc. All of these need names and descriptions and it is a difficult job giving them suitable ones that don’t automatically speak of some definite Earth culture or belief system.

Some names are very specific to certain races, cultures or belief systems and when we hear them, we automatically get a picture of the environment and people connected with that culture. For instance if I called one of my heroes Francoise, the reader would automatically think of him as French, even if this process was a subconscious one and they might even imagine him talking with an appropriately French accent..! Now this would be fine if my story was set in France or Canada, but if it’s taking place on the planet Zog in the 37th century, then a French feel to my character would not be totally appropriate and would decrease the ‘realism’ of the whole thing. For me, keeping it real and plausible is very important and I take great care when choosing names for my stories and I believe that the realistic feel is picked up by the reader and makes it easier for them to believe in the story and feel a part of it.

So what do I do with my names? Well there are two options as far as I can see. You could be clever like Tolkien and invent a whole new language and have your character speak that and have totally invented names. If you did this however, you would then need to include a translation. For me, inventing a new language and then including a translation requires far too much knowledge and time. The other way, which is what I do, is to take names we already know and slightly change them to make them more ‘neutral’. Let me give you an example. In my sci fi series The Lilean Chronicles, there is a fairly central character whom I have named Toma. He is a male character, young and titled and has his whole life ahead of him. He comes from a world inhabited by a very spiritual, and technologically advanced race. Because he’s not from Earth I had to give him a name that sounds young, cool and up and coming, but at the same time doesn’t sound too Earth-like and risk tagging him with the wrong identity. What I did was take the name Thomas as a starting point. This is a name that titled people often have and it doesn’t automatically make you think of a particular race or culture; it’s suitably bland. I then messed with it a bit; dropped the letters h and s and kept the rest – Toma.

It’s a similar process I use when naming planets, animals, plants and gadgets. With gadgets, I come up with the physical description first, and then I add its function into the mix and then invent a name that ties in with both so that it sounds plausible and fits its function. Other things like animals, plants and the names of planets I just have fun inventing them for they don’t necessarily have to ‘fit’ with anything.

One important thing to remember when naming your characters and other content; google the name first to make sure someone else hasn’t already thought of it. I wrote the whole of the first book in The Lilean Chronicles series before being told that the name I’d given to a race of people was already in use by the makers of Dr Who. I had to spend several days thinking of a new name for them, before going through the entire book and changing every occurrence of the name. A lesson well learned.