Why a character with so little redeeming features?

I’ve been working on a story entitled “Key West” and sharing drafts with my wife and daughter and a friend. Little did I expect that these three important people in my life would so uniformly tell me that my story “wasn’t my best effort,” as my daughter tried to put it tactfully. It seems that my main character, Eli, is not a very nice person, and the story stays in his head throughout its 3700 words. I have been taught that stories about unpleasant people can be good stories, but that the protagonist must have some redeeming characteristics, something that will make the reader care about him even if he’s not the type of person one would select as a companion. Well, I thought that’s what I’d done in my story, but apparently not.

So now what? Either I need to invent all kinds of additional redeeming characteristics for Eli and work them into the story or have the other main character, Eli’s son, put his father in his place. Or, as my wife has asked, “What’s the point of this story, anyway?” The point was to try to entertain. Instead, in all three readers, I have evoked feelings of anger or disappointment. Why anger? Because the obnoxious main character has a dim view of poor people and those without a college degree, because the well-bred son uses the term “ain’t” when talking to his dad, because Eli tries to push his son into moving towards a more middle-class role in the world. Why disappointment? Because the story doesn’t end with a bang but with a whimper. 

The great thing about having people read your stories who will be honest is that it gives you a chance to do better before releasing the story to the unforgiving public. “Remember what the reader wants,” I need to keep telling myself and then applying my energies to that end.


About brucejberger

Bruce J. Berger has published his short fiction in a variety of print and on-line literary journals, including Prole, Jersey Devil Press Anthology, The Awakenings Review, Raphael's Village, Eastown Fiction, Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and others. He also publishes shorts stories for Amazon's Kindle. He is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at American University beginning in August 2015.
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