A few weeks ago I blogged about the importance of a protagonist being a hero. I put a book down because the protagonist wasn't redeeming in any way. Yesterday, I picked up FAKE ID by Jason Starr. The main character, Tommy Russo, is a degenerate gambler who lies, cheats, and steals to get what he wants. He is the ultimate asshole: sweet talking a girl into bed then stealing her jewelry in the morning, taking the money out of the safe at work right after his boss told him he was the only employee he trusted, throwing away every last dime he has at the track. He seems to have no morals, no conscience, he has a sense of right and wrong but simply doesn't care. Going by my previous post, I should have put the book down immediately. Instead I read it in one sitting.
FAKE ID is published by Hard Case Crime, a line of mass market pulp novels. When you pick up one of their paperbacks, the ones with the painted cover art portraying seductive women and tough guys with guns, you know what you're in for: sex, violence, and hardboiled crime fiction. In this tradition, the protagonist in FAKE ID is not a detective. Actually, he's the offender in all of the crimes committed in the book. So how can readers be expected to root for a protagonist that's actually a villain? Maybe they're not.
The reason I couldn't stop reading was the suspense of the story. Russo continues to dig himself deeper and deeper, soon finding himself in a hole so deep, it's impossible to climb out. It's not that I was rooting for him; I actually got excited when his plans went awry or it looked like he would be caught. Starr continued to throw obstacles at his character, never made things easy for him, and I couldn't wait to see how he was going to get him out.
All morning, I've been thinking about the difference between this book and the one I put down a few weeks ago. Was it the writing? The story? Or was it because I knew what to expect, that since it was a pulp novel I knew the character would be flawed?
I think the main difference is the writing style and the intentions of the author. Starr is unapologetic in his writing. He writes Russo the way he is without trying to make readers sympathetic. Other authors attempt to make readers understand why their characters are the way they are, try to make you feel sorry for and sympathize with them. I seem to prefer Starr's approach. If your main character is an asshole, make him an asshole. Readers don't have to like him, they only have to like the story. If you want me to care about a character, that's different. I can't care about someone with no morals and no conscience, no matter what happened in their childhood or what circumstances led them to commit so many bad acts.
FAKE ID is a good story, and I enjoyed hearing it. I didn't like the character, I wasn't rooting for him, but I was still eager to see what happened next. But if the book is character driven, if it relies on the internal conflicts of the characters to drive the story forward, then the characters have to be redeeming. They have to be heroes.
More and more I see that the beautiful part of fiction is that there are no rules. I thought I pinned one down only to have it broken a few weeks later. As readers, we can form ideas about what types of books we like and don't like, but there are always going to be one or two that break the rules and disprove our ideas.