LB: Thoughts on Creating a Protagonist Who’s a Total Asshole

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by Larry Brody

Back in 2001, after the demise of FoxKids TV, Haim Saban’s U.S. production company, and, therefore, Spider-Man unlimited and my last show for both corporations, Diabolik, I used the time I now had – and the disgust I felt about the whole way my second career (AKA the animation writing thing) had gone – to write a novel.

It was based on a true story, and I worked very closely with the subject of that story, a cardio-thoracic surgeon who had unfairly lost his medical license because, in his own words, “I’m a major league asshole.”

And, truth to tell, he was.

I found him fascinating.

Ditto his story.

Plotwise, it was a thriller about how his experiences as a surgeon in-country during the Vietnam War involved in a conspiracy  culminating in a (for real) highly classified and majorly covered-up nuclear bombing on mainland China.

Characterwise, the novel was about how the doctor’s experiences affected his life and career and how he ruined just about everything and everyone he touched.

And never cared.

I thought of the story as a non-comedic satire of anti-heroism and thrillers in general, sort of a a Flashman Meets The Manchurian Candidate, and I researched and wrote it with true dedication and great care.

After about six months with Dr. Total Asshole either at my house or in my head, I had what I thought was a pretty damn good first draft. So I did what many writers do in such an instance.

I showed it to my wife.

By this time, Gwen the Beautiful knew Dr.T.A. every bit as well as I did, and he may well have known her even better than I did. By which I mean, yes, he pulled out all the stops, doing what guys like he was did, not only being very charming but also helping us handle some medical problems she had that no other doctors had been able to solve.

Gwen read the draft and hated it. Every word.

“Why would I want to read about such a dick?” she asked. “Why would I care whether he survived his ordeals or not? Can’t you at least make him become a better person by the end?”

“Well, one of the points I’m trying to make here is that the hero beats the bad guys and saves the world because they keep underestimating what a miserable son of a bitch he is. I’m trying to be ironic and, you know, kind of funny,” I said.

Gwen didn’t answer. I kept talking because I know her greatest strength as a human being, wife, and lover, which also in many ways is her secret weakness.

She believes as fiercely as any human being can in a not so little thing called TRUTH.

“Do you think our friend Dr.T.A. is a better person now as a result of all he’s gone through” I asked her.

Gwen’s lips moved in a way I knew meant that she was forming the word, “No.” But not only is she radically honest no matter what the situation, she’s also a kind, gentle, and tender soul. So instead of saying it, she just smiled ruefully and shrugged.

Over the next couple of weeks, I sent the draft to several writers and one agent I valued as first readers. I didn’t mention the concern I now had about it, but I did ask their opinions.

Only one of them responded.

Believe it or not, it was the agent.

“Your command of the English language and the narrative form are, as always, top notch,” he said. “But I don’t see a publisher buying this. It’s a man’s story from beginning to end, and the publishing world is undergoing a drastic change. Almost ninety percent of  readers and the equivalent number of new editors are women. Men’s stories aren’t making it out into the world anymore.”

“So what’re you saying?” I said (combatively, I admit). “Should I make the hero a woman?”

“No, no,” the agent said.”That’s not my point at all. But it would help considerably if you softened him, made his attitudes more acceptable. You know, kind of gender neutral.”

I never showed the ms. to anyone else anywhere. Just did my best to tamp down my anger and put it in my unfinished folder. Every now and then I psyche up and take it out to try another revision, intending to slant the next draft so it’s more in line with ever-changing contemporary audience needs but end up stopping about halfway through and putting it away again.

Why am I spilling all this? Why am I showing you my still unhealed wound? Because a couple of days ago on Our Glorious Interwebs, I saw an article on Lucy V Hay’s most excellent blog Bang 2 Write, called “How To Write A Protagonist Who Is A Total Asshole,” and I thought, “Damn, I should read this. Maybe I can make Dr.TA’s story work yet.”

But the thought filled me with way more terror than even my prostate cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago, so I haven’t done anything but stare at the picture accompanying the headline and wonder if I maybe should’ve turned this project into a screenplay for Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray instead.

Bottom line. I’m not sending any of the now multitudinous drafts of this book out to anyone because I can’t face another response of pure silence, but I’m hoping some of you out there will read Lucy V Hay’s article and let me know what it says so maybe, just maybe, I can convince myself to try again.

“How To Write A Protagonist Who Is A Total Asshole,”is HERE at Bang 2 Write

And there you have it, the writing life ain’t exactly an easy one. No matter how many years and how many successes you’ve had under your belt.

Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.

2 thoughts on “LB: Thoughts on Creating a Protagonist Who’s a Total Asshole”

    1. I did read your article, Lucy, and got a lot out of it. I now know that my asshole protagonist was simply too big of an asshole. I loved him, but not even my wife could finish reading the book because he made her so mad.

      It’s okay. We’re still married, almost thirty years now.

      Keep rocking the boat!

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