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I’ve often heard publishing experts encourage writers to make their protagonist likable. We are supposed to make these Katniss and Frodo types who sacrifice everything for other people. Those are wonderful characters but there are other realities, ones where the protagonist is a coward. Where they make wrong decisions. Where they are mean. Where they steal, cheat, lie, and leave their loved ones to die with little emotion showed.  

What about Sherlock Holmes? He was considered cold and dispassionate. 

Writing a protagonist that readers want to follow and cheer on is no easy feat for authors. Do you write your main character to be always good tempered? Or much like Holmes, should they be rude? The answer is that like everything in writing, there’s no right answers. It’s purely subjective. In this issue, we’re going to explore the more Sherlock Holmes type characters. Join us in the next issue when I turn the coin over and detail how to write the likable protagonist. 

Write about what you know. That’s common advice to writers. More recently, agents and editors have encouraged authors to write from their gender and race. If you’re a white male it’s sometimes frowned upon to write a book from the perspective of a minority women. I had an author friend tell me that his agent would turn down my books. Sure I have books from the POV of a blonde girl, which I happen to be. But I also have a series written from the POV of a British, male womanizer. And I’m none of those things. But you know what I’d tell my friend’s agent? “Go to bloody hell you daft wanker.” 

So since I love breaking rules I decided to break both those when I created the legendary Ren Lewis! He’s nothing like me and he’s completely unlikable. And you know what? I have zero regrets. 

I had a reader contact me the other day. “What part of the UK are you from?” The native Londoner asked me over email. He had just read the first book in the Ren series, The Man Behind the Monster. 

“I’m not from the UK,” I informed him. “I’m a born and raised Texan.”
“No way,” the reader responded.
Way. 

Ren Lewis was raised in a small town in the countryside of England. He abandoned the “holy pits of hell” at age seventeen for the bright lights and easy women in London. It is in this city that a majority of the story takes place. And although I’ve visited London, I’m by no means an expert on the city. So how did I, a girl raised in a rodeo town, write an entire series featuring a snarky Brit? I think I owe a lot to BBC. While most children were watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Disney movies, I was watching British comedies. To this day I’ve never seen 101 Dalmatians or Beauty and the Beast. However, I don’t feel deprived. I was nourished by the dry humor of shows like Are You Being Served, Keeping Up Appearances, Red Dwarf and of course Doctor Who. And more recently I’ve been a huge fan of Black Books, Thin Blue Line, IT Crowd and Vicar of Dibley. When it comes to American pop culture I’m completely clueless. However, I know tons of different British terms for private parts. Twigs and berries. Bollocks. Fanny. Gentleman Sausage. Knob. Bell End. Dobber. Meat and two veg. John Thomas. Just to name a few. And when I curse I can make it sound slightly dignified. 

The truth is that from a young age I was obsessed with British culture. The first thing I ever wrote was a play set in London called Just a Cup of Tea. And I wrote that three act play at age eight from a treehouse in East Texas. 

I obviously don’t agree with the snobby publishing critics who think we have to write from the POV of our gender and race. I’ve heard male romance writers say they’ve been criticized for having a female main character. And God forbid a white author write first person POV as a Native American. It can be done. It can be done right and well. What it takes is a proper education and diligence. For instance, I have two beta readers from London who check my vernacular. 

And I don’t believe that protagonist have to be likable. They need to be real. Relatable. And more than anything, they need to be interesting. 

So was it a risk to write a series like Ren’s? Absolutely. But the result is a man came alive, one who insults the public while saving their lives. One who has the decency to use his powers for good and also won’t refrain from telling people they’re bloody gits. Ren, to me, is very much alive, and to my readers he’s real. So my advice to writers is take chances. Educate yourself. And never allow someone to tell you that a character is off limits or you need to make them more likable. Hell, Ren personally tells his readers to “F” off in one of his books. And you know what? Readers love him. 

So write the character who is in your head, whether they are black, white, politically incorrect or a solid jerk.

Join us in the next issue where we explore what makes for the likable protagonist because there is something to be said for the Katniss and Frodos of the book world. 

 

by Sarah Noffke  (TopShelf Columnist)

Twitter @RealSarahNoffke / SarahNoffke.com