In Defense of an Unlikable Protagonist, When the Unlikable Protagonist is Yourself

by Beejoli Shah


There’s this thing I’ve done since I was a kid that I rarely talk about — -mainly because it’s embarrassing. Anytime I’m alone, I’m probably scripting scenarios in my head of how my life should go. Not the kind of fantastical daydreaming that encompasses what would happen if the fates were ever to align and I finally got to meet my pun-loving idol Dave Coulier; actual, real-life situations ranging from romantically tense showdowns with men (that never actually come to fruition), to the mundane small talk I practice to ensure I’m the most charming customer in the cramped waiting room of my local auto body shop.

Maybe it’s a childhood tic, born out of severe unpopularity coupled with an overactive imagination. Maybe it’s the machinations of a subconscious pushing me to become a writer long before I ever realized I wanted to spend my life putting words on paper. Whatever the reason, it’s something I still do, to this day, almost to the point of obsession. I’m rarely living in the moment because it’s a veritable television writer’s room in my head, with a million self-contained voices pitching different narratives, joke arcs, and real-time admonishments to their leading lady: me.

The thing that each of those scenarios have in common? In each and every one, I am always right. I am always the best. Even when spurned, I am always the most downtrodden heroine who will rise again, likely by way of a cleverly crafted monologue filled with dated references and verbal cues worthy of an Amy Sherman-Palladino television program. After all, when you’re constantly crafting your own narrative, you’re never the villain. But that’s the thing — -it’s just a narrative. In my actual world, I rarely stick to the script, and I’m the villain far more often than I’d care to admit.

As someone who writes self-indulgent first-person essays as a career, being able to recognize myself as a villain in my real life is a problem. No one wants to admit to themselves that being the type of person who would catfish someone they’re already dating — -solely for the purposes of entrapment — -might speak to a larger personality issue rather an isolated incident of temporary lunacy. Translating those stories on the page without assuming some sort of authorial flippancy to diminish the severity of the transgressions? Fucking impossible. No matter how brutally honest I want to be about my own mistakes, the written version on the page always ends up sanitized and edited to resemble the character I want to be in my head.

When you’re a writer, your responsibility isn’t to the reader. Your responsibility isn’t even to demonstrate how much you’ve grown and learned. Essays aren’t meant to be an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a gift-wrapped life lesson served up like a prize at the bottom of a cereal box. As writers, our responsibility is to our characters, even if that character is ourselves. When I write about the fucked-up things I’ve done (of which, I assure you, there are many), I’m not so distanced from them I can’t see my own transgressions. But just because I’m willing to put my own personal wins and losses under the microscope doesn’t mean I’m looking for absolution. I will make peace with my own gods about the mistakes I’ve made, and those gods rarely live in the comments section.

As Elizabeth Spiers said in her essay, “Self vs. Narrator,”

This is something that happens with everyone who writes because the narrator and the self are two different things even when we try to use the former to intentionally articulate the desires and thoughts of the latter. But Jason’s post reminded me of something that former Flavorwire Deputy Ed Tyler Coates (crediting where credit is due) once described to me as his personal 80/20 theory, which is that everything you know about a person from his or her writing and various online artifacts is representative of maybe 20% of who they are, and the other 80% is probably not reflected at all.

As someone who has crowed on dates, “Please date me and not my internet persona!” I get it. I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. But I’m also aware that a major reason why 80% of me is shoved into a closet, why my writing is so flowery and joke-peppered and flattering — -so, so flattering, even when I’m describing myself at my worst — -isn’t just because I write to be performative. These days, I write to be defensive: of my actions, of my mistakes, of anything that doesn’t paint me in the best light. And though reader reaction is swift and usually brutal, it’s not the external criticism I’m concerned with. I’m defensive of my real self, because the self I’ve characterized in my head would never, ever approve of the actions my real self took.

All that sanitization isn’t without it’s own set of consequences. I know I’m letting myself down — -writer me, character me, real me, all of ’em. But the bigger issue for me is sitting on stories that I know deserve to be told only if they’re going to be told honestly. In the court of public opinion (and also sometimes real courts), justice is doled out very specifically to people who committed very specific crimes. Area man is committed after he’s found guilty of murdering six of his neighbors, his lack of remorse deeming him a clinical psychopath. Double-life leading housewife catfishes good-looking Jewish-American documentarian via MySpace — -she’s clearly nuts. Our villains are absolute, because their crimes are magnified and painted as such. But when you’re the villain in the story, and your crime wasn’t caught (or at the least, your friends assured you that everyone fakes a pregnancy at least once in high school for the sport of it all, and no, as your therapist already showed you on the DSM-IV, you’re not a sociopath), there’s a hell of a lot more nuance. By not writing your character, yourself, warts and all, how do you ever really explore those reasons behind why you did what you did, without sweeping it under the rug in favor of, well, not coming off like the villain?

I’m starting to understand the women who can write themselves as villains, or even just as nuisances, immature, petty, self-centered; the litany of insults lobbied at women who are not the heroines of their stories. It’s the unapologetic commitment to writing things that are going to chafe. If they don’t chafe, we’re doing it wrong. I may not like my unlikable protagonist in the story of my life much, and the urge is always going to exist to write her better — -or at least dress up her sins and joke around them to try to downplay their severity — -but I’m finally starting to make peace with being the bitch, the villain, the harlot.

If it doesn’t chafe, I’m doing it wrong.

Beejoli really regrets catfishing her high school boyfriend. If you’d like to be next, holler at your girl.