Hard to Like Leads

on May 20, 2013 in Misc

Did you see the movie Zero Dark Thirty? If you did, there’s no way you’d forget Maya.

At the very least you saw the trailers and know that Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) is the CIA analyst who was instrumental in helping to track down bin Laden.

What’s fantastic is that Maya is a real-life, flesh-and-blood woman.

What’s not so fantastic is that if any one of us writers created her and put her in a novel, we’d get nothing but grief.

Here’s why…

Maya has no personal life.  During the several years she and her teammates hunt for bin Laden, she obsessively works long hours at the office and then goes home to crash.  She learns to feel no sympathy for the man her colleagues are torturing.  She has no romance ever.  She has crappy social skills.  Doesn’t give a damn about networking.  Uses the F word like a gun. When she thinks her obsessive hunt is being undermined, she furiously shouts down her boss.  She makes it clear to a soldier that she wants him to KILL bin Laden.

There’s a wonderful scene when Maya is back at Langley and in a closed door meeting with a few men and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.  The topic of the meeting is about whether a) bin Laden is definitely in a compound in Abbottobad, and b) were they ready to go after him there?  Panetta looks at Maya and asks, “Who are you?”  Maya replies, “I’m the motherf—– who found him.”

Oh God I love that scene.

Yet if I put that dialogue in a novel, I’d get no end of grief.  “Does she really have to use language like that?” so many people would ask me – especially women.  “Must she be so unlikeable? Can’t you make her more sympathetic?  Someone we could identify with?”

Oh puke.

For me, the screenwriter (Mark Boal) was brilliant when he made Maya the main character.  This is a hard-as-nails story about a brutal secret war, and Maya played a hard-as-nails role in it.  Yet ironically, what makes her a riveting character in a real-life drama might put off many readers of fiction.

Is this where non-fiction has it all over fiction?

When I was writing The Compass Master and now with my upcoming Charity MacCay books, I didn’t have to strain to make Layla and Charity likeable because I genuinely like them.  Still, I envy the extremely rare fiction writer who can create a lead character – especially a female lead – who is difficult or even impossible to like but you can’t stop reading her story.  Think of Scarlet O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander.  They aren’t just characters, they’re ferocious forces of nature.

And in the realm of non-fiction, so is Maya.  Yet I really, really like her.

What about your own characters?  Have you ever attempted, or just been tempted, to create a difficult, unusual, on-the-edge extreme MC that would shock readers?  Did anyone try to discourage you?

22 Responses to “Hard to Like Leads”

  1. Haven’t seen the film yet, but I’d heard she was a difficult person to like.
    I did have to reign in Byron a bit in the first book, because both of my test readers said he was too unlikeable. You might be onto something there.

  2. Helena says:

    Alex – I’m going to be reading your books soon and I’m eager to see what Byron is like.

  3. Hart Johnson says:

    It really IS hard to sell not likeable… Katniss Everdeen is another that can be very harsh, but Collins brilliantly has her sacrifice herself at the beginning, so we are all rooting for her even though she’s harsh and unsentimental. What she REALLY has is that she is competent and fierce–she has people depending on her and HAS to survive.

  4. Helena says:

    Hart – Katniss is a good example. There were times in that trilogy when I wanted to slap her up the side of the head and tell her that yes, she was damaged but that was still no excuse for her steel-hard edges. But because she sacrifices herself for others, I keep rooting for her.

  5. I liked Zero Dark Thirty, mostly because I wanted to know more about how the whole thing went down. Boy, is it ever a different world in Pakistan (and that part of the world). I would feel so scared and so out of place there. We have it good here in the U.S. The intense religious world is about as close to Hell as I can imagine.

  6. Helena says:

    Michael – I was in Pakistan years ago and thought it was an armpit with some wonderful people but tragedy and corruption everywhere. Now things are even worse — the Sunday NY Times had a big story on how the train system is falling apart, and it’s a major source of transportation in that country. A big problem is that Pakistan is a new country (1947) artificially created and divided by tribes like the Punjabi, Sindhi, etc. So the government emphasized the Muslim faith to help unite people. Needless to say that tactic has really backfired.

    Oh, and to go up the Khyber Pass or to the gun market town of Darra (the idiot NRA would love that place) I had to get official permission and was required to have an armed guard. Large parts of that country really are out of control.

  7. I’m a fan of Chastain as an actress, so I’ll definitely get around to seeing this one at some point. I think we need more strong female leads in film and fiction.

  8. Helena says:

    Milo – Chastain really did a great job in this movie, and she plays Maya as super strong but human.

  9. Trisha says:

    I think it’s okay to dislike a character so long as there’s something there that keeps you compelled to read on.

    I would definitely prefer an unlikeable character to a sickly sweet, perfect one (I have read about such Mary-Sues before and they do make me want to puke).

    Actually, I just read a book where I didn’t like one of the main characters, and yet her final act in the book was one that made me a little bit teary and redeemed her, at least a little. Fact remains she was a pretty nasty character. The book was IMAGINARY GIRLS.

  10. Ciara Knight says:

    I didn’t know about Zero Dark Thirty. I think I’ve been under a rock for awhile. :)

  11. Helena says:

    Ciara – My guess is you’ve probably been writing like crazy and been super busy with family. You are so productive!

  12. Helena says:

    Trisha – I’ll look up “Imaginary Girls” — I like the twist with that character.

  13. I haven’t seen the film, but occasionally unlikeable characters really do work–even in fiction. Stories can’t ALL be the same.

  14. I guess this is one of the reasons we’re cautioned that real life doesn’t translate well into fiction. I think at least one of the secrets – and maybe the only secret – to writing a fictional Maya is to let us see her heart and know her backstory so we know why she is like she is. This movie is still on my list to see, but I understand we never learn that in the movie because Maya is a compilation of several women who worked on this project.

    As a personal aside, I’m fascinated that CIA put women on this vital project. Was it because they expected them to fail and didn’t want men blamed for the failure? Or did they know how tenacious women are, would follow the tiniest thread, and not one of them would give up the hunt? Or something else?

  15. Wow. You were in Pakistan? You are a brave woman. I hear that things may be looking up. They have just now elected a second government and the military is staying out of it? At least that’s what NPR had to say about the country. But they do have a long ways to go.

  16. Helena says:

    Lynda – You’re right. Variety really keeps our interest.

  17. Helena says:

    Michael – For everyone’s sake, including the U.S., I hope life in Pakistan and the government get a whole lot better.

  18. Helena says:

    Carol — I was really intrigued by your comment so I looked up a few quick facts. It seems that “Maya” did work with other women (as shown in the movie), but that this character in the film is largely based on one individual. There’s a Washington Post story about the issue, and you can find it here:


    I like a quote from the article: “Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures the woman’s dedication and combative temperament. ‘She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,’ said a former CIA associate.”

    Like you, I’m also fascinated that women worked on this project. Unfortunately I don’t get HBO, but I know it’s had a documentary called “Manhunt” which explains how “a whole team of women… began sounding the alarm about the al-Qaida leader almost a decade before the 9/11 attacks made bin Laden a household name.” But I still can’t find out WHY it was women and whether the CIA deliberately chose them because of their gender or because this fact is a mere coincidence.

    I do remember that years ago I read an article written by a male anthropologist, and he explained why women made better observers of animal behavior than men did and cited Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey as examples. If I can find the article I’ll post the jist of it here.

  19. I couldn’t tell you where I read about the amalgamation of the Maya character, but either I misread or misremembered or the article was incorrect. I’d put the blame on me, one way or the other. Thanks for clearing that up.

    We don’t get HBO either. This movie is high on my list.

    I don’t know if women are better observers, but I do believe men and women see different things. At least at first. And I think women see patterns much quicker and easier than men. Overall. There are always exceptions.

  20. Helena says:

    Carol – Actually, I think I read somewhere that Maya was an amalgamation, and only by looking up several articles do I think I got more clear info. But because of the secrecy of the mission, we’ll probably never really know.

    It seems there are a few inborn subtle differences between men and women, at least in general; there are always exceptions. I like to think that this is why we need each other–because together our differences make us more complete.

  21. Old Kitty says:

    Now you are making me want to see this film – but at the moment the news is so full of horrible-ness and bloodshed and lots of hate and ignorance I’m wanting to escape into film escapism and rent out a Pixar film instead…! LOL!

    My current female character in my wip is totally evil and I love her! LOL! Take care

  22. Helena says:

    Old Kitty – A totally evil female character? What a brave writer you are!

    Zero Dark Thirty has some really tough scenes to watch; you can wait to see it years from now, if you want. Meanwhile, some sweet escapism sounds great.