After I wrote last week about fiction being used to do nothing more than express an idea or emotion or whatever we have a “Big Idea” from John Scalzi’s site that pretty much admits to that. It’s K.C. Alexander talking about her book “Necrotech”, and all she says about it is, well, that it represents her. She describes the protagonist thusly:
I don’t like boxes. And neither does Necrotech’s protagonist—a type of woman whole sub-sections of societally-minded folk remind us don’t and shouldn’t exist.
Riko is a splatter specialist (that’s Tarantino level of gory mess, in case the title wasn’t clear) with all the agency of a man—and in being this, she tests the boundaries of what a woman in a book is supposed to be in this enlightened age of women’s rights. She is not soft. She is not tender. She would prefer to put a boot in your teeth instead of “work it out”, she lacks all maternal instinct, and her flaws are loaded for bear. With all the swag of a street thug, a policy of pleasing herself first, and a piss-poor temperament for emotions, she’s nobody’s idea of a good girlfriend.
She tends to somewhat proudly think of herself as a bad boyfriend.
And she came from a space of deeply engrained social erasure.
This … is a rather odd idea of what it means to have “the agency of a man”, it seems to me. Moreover, this doesn’t exactly sound like an interesting protagonist to the story. What we have here, it seems to me, is the typical “asshole” protagonist. Except … we aren’t really supposed to like the “asshole” protagonist, nor are they to be written that way. In general, we want to see assholes brought down in our fiction, and put in their place. The only exceptions are those asshole protagonists who are assholes to their enemies but who can be nice to their friends. About the closest I can picture of an actual asshole protagonist who is the unvarnished hero might be James Bond, but even he isn’t really an asshole, as he plays games and does deadpan snarking, but we can see that, at least in part, that’s to keep people at a distance because if he starts to care and he loses them it devastates him, as we see with his dead wife.
Read K.C. Alexander’s description of Riko and tell me that there’s anything like that with her.
So, in general, with asshole protagonists we either see that they really do have a heart of gold that they use the assholishness to hide, or else they get humbled and learn to overcome that, and thus win in the end through that realization. A good example of the latter is the “Justice League Unlimited” episode “The Greatest Story Never Told”. Booster Gold starts as someone who is, well, a prime example of the asshole protagonist. He is incredibly annoying, and only gets topped briefly by the Elongated Man. But as things go along, he gets humiliated and humiliated and has to accept that he is, in fact, a loser, and only came back to this time so that he could be something other than a loser … but his experiences prove that he is, still, nothing more than a loser. But in that the hot scientist that he was simply hitting on points out that he’s the only one who can even try to save the day, so he had better go out and do it. In that, he succeeds … and we finally cheer for him because he’s shown the self-awareness and humility to make him worthy of saving the day and, in the end, being the hero … even if it is only to him and the scientist.
Again, read the description of Riko and tell me if there’s anything like that there.
Unvarnished “asshole” protagonists are unlikeable, but Alexander thinks that some people, well, might like Riko, as she herself seems to. But on what grounds should we like her? It’s not that she has a heart of gold, and it’s not that she learns humility, so what is it that she thinks we’ll find appealing, like she finds it appealing?
I am Necrotech’s Big Idea. Me, and the people like me who are so often told that we can’t, don’t, shouldn’t. That what we are, what we present, is problematic for the greater society. The cause. The fight.
I know why I started writing this woman who does not care what you think of her. Whatever else the overarching themes, I know why Riko is the heart of it, the voice of it, the eyes seeing it all unfold.
I am Riko—with my snarl in place to warn away any asshole who wants to tell me how I should behave, my finger upraised to everyone who ever told me I was doing it wrong, my heart wrapped in diamondsteel where nobody can reach it to re-program what is mine. Like Riko, I’m not exactly bulletproof, but I can take it with a bloody smile and still come back to kick ass.
My name used to be Karina Cooper. I wrote what was, in so many ways, expected of me. And when I started Necrotech, I defied every expectation. And because I did, it suffered every rejection—until I realized that the ‘me’ that had been cultivated was not the me I was. That I had spent my life thinking I was strong and individual and independent, only to learn that I was so very wrong. And most of all, that the book I’d written wasn’t Karina’s story to tell.
Now my name is K. C. Alexander. Riko may be me incarnate—cranked to 11—but I like to be called Kace.
She so effusively loves that character because that character embodies what she thinks she is … or what she wants to be. She sees herself hemmed in by rules — or that she at least was hemmed in by rules — and sees this character as an expression of being free from that. The character is good because of what it expresses, not because of what it is as a fictional character … because what it is as a fictional character is, in fact, unappealing. So those who can relate to those feelings will like the character, and those who can’t won’t. But it seems to me that good fiction — and the fiction that the anti-Puppy side seems to want — allows us to like or cheer for a character even if we don’t feel the same way as they do. Even if we find James Bond to be an old-fashioned, misogynistic jerk … we still want him to win because the character and the context means that he — and only someone like him — can win, and we can in some sense, maybe, enjoy the way he achieves the goal that is both a good goal and one that we should want. Yuri from Shadow Hearts is similar, as he starts as a misogynistic jerk and evolves into a genuinely good character, so we can enjoy the snark as being aimed at his enemies knowing that, at least with his friends, he doesn’t really mean it.
I don’t see anything like that in this description. And Alexander could not be clearer about wanting to expressing ideas, and a number of them:
If you read Necrotech and think it has nothing to do with this woman-who-acts-like-a-man, that’s okay. There are enough Ideas in the book, in the series as it will be play out, to talk about, think about, embrace or reject.
But is she going to argue for them, explore them? Or is she just going to toss the ideas out there and hope that we’ll find them interesting enough to enjoy the book?
My bet’s on the latter.