Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Are you a “plus” or a “minus”?

by Rick Blechta

My wife and I have a theory about people. A person who overall has a positive outlook on life is a “plus”, and one who tends towards the negative is a “minus”. You can’t be in the middle on this. Years of observing people confirms our suspicions. You don’t need to be around someone for very long to be able to categorize them.

That being said, there are certainly gradations in the two categories. It is possible to be slightly positive or sort of negative. The people to watch out for are those who seem to have the ability to suck all joy out of a gathering with seemingly little effort. Fortunately, I’ve only run into a few of those. Being an empath — which I am (clinically proven when I was in university) — I can tell pretty quickly where people fall. I only have to interact with someone for a few moments to know if their glass is half full or half empty.

What the heck does all this have to do with crime writing, you ask? Well, there’s this: Why do so many protagonists in crime writing have more negative tendencies and outlooks than you would find in real life? Sure, most are crusading do-gooders, brave and generally forthright, but they have an overall negative view on life.

Take Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Whoa! Major negative energy there. Rebus? Ditto. Even in cozies which have a lighter touch, you don’t find too many protagonists who are high on the positive scale.

The next question to ask is why. Are negative people more interesting to read about? Does someone have to be populated with inner demons to get the job done? There’s a saying that goes “for every positive, there is a negative”. I find in life, that’s true, why doesn’t it happen in crime fiction — or any fiction for that matter? Are only negative people interesting enough to carry the weight of a whole novel?

Looking back on my own writing, literally every protagonist I’ve used has been a negative. True, some of them have been low down on the minus side, but they are definitely the sorts of people who light up every room they enter. Why do I, as a positive person create characters who are different from me?

I’m still in the process of thinking through this conundrum, so I can’t give you any answers at the moment.

Anyone out there want to put forth a theory?


Sybil Johnson said...

An interesting post. I shall have to mull this over.

Rick Blechta said...

I've been mulling it for the past week. If I'd had the time, I would have included a long list of popular protagonists and rated them as pluses or minuses. Alas it was not to be.

I imagine there will be more on this topic anon.

Unknown said...

Interesting topic. I've often stopped reading certain good authors (usually just for a while) because their protagonists were just too dark.
With some of these detectives it is easy to imagine the negativity and cynicism as self-protection thing. A way to avoid more disappointment in humanity. For the plus type reader, that can create an empathy with the protagonists, and then you have more of an investment in their success in solving the crimes. Bringing the bad guys to justice makes everyone happy and maybe restores some faith for our heroes. That makes us feel better too.

Rick Blechta said...

S Bruce -- A good point about the detectives.

I've bailed on books because everything just seems so hopeless. This usually occurs when my headspace is not good, so the issue is mine and not the author's.

Eve Barbeau said...

You know who was a positive? Miss Marple, and maybe Poroit too. But you are right, most of the mystery fiction I read have a negative protagonist. I think it's our current propensity for damaged people. And maybe the advise not to make your protagonist to perfect.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Very interesting ... I tend to think the most fascinating protagonists – and antagonists – are both positive and negative. Basically, flawed but at their core they must be good. I takes a clever writer, I think, to pull that off.

Rick Blechta said...

Eve, Miss Marple for sure was a positive. Poirot kind of goes both ways, but certainly leans more towards the positive than negative. As for perfection in a protagonist, you're right. It would be unbelievable if a protagonist's life was that way.

One interesting character is Lord Peter Wimsey. Yes, he does have doubts and such, but he is a really positive person. (Dorothy L. Sayers was more than halfway in love with him.) To balance him off she used "co-protagonist" Harriet Vane who is definitely a negative.