The main character of my military sci-fi litRPG, Charlie Foxtrot Zero, might have come on too strong for some readers. John Easterbrook starts off—and is meant to be—a total jerk. Dude is privileged, entitled, and violent. One Royal Road reader left this gem in the comment section of the first chapter: “Main character is too psycho for me. Can’t relate to him. Passing.” To top it off, this comment “coincided” with a .5 rating. Classy af.
However, maybe I could show John’s likable side a bit earlier. I would like Charlie Foxtrot Zero to be the first of a multi-book series, and everything hinges on this first entry. One book that portrayed a flawed but likable character is Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow. Masha Maximow has made a lot of money working for the vilest people on the planet. Yet, she is sympathetic and—more importantly—likable. In the following writing, I’m going to compare how Masha Maximow and my main character are portrayed and see if I can make John a bit more likable.
As soon as a main character enters their story, the novel should show that character’s flaw. Right away, Mr. Doctorow has Masha going to work for a fictional former Eastern Bloc country. Her job is to help autocrats conduct surveillance on their own citizens. It pays good money, and if she didn’t take it, someone else would. Her own company justifies these activities by working within the legal confines of whatever country they work for.
In the first scene of Charlie Foxtrot Zero, John shows his unsuitability for leadership. During a game of gutterball—a violent sci-fi sport—Sylvester fumbles the ball and ruins John’s carefully laid plans. John flips out and attacks his own teammate. Though he doesn’t quite understand it yet, the reason he reacted so violently is linked to his severing of relations with his mother. His mother entrusted him to carry on the caste family name, but instead, he eloped with his girlfriend. When his mother found out, she struck John.
The brilliance of Attack Surface appears in its save-the-cat beat. For those of you who I just confused, Save the Cat is a book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder that details all the plot beats a successful Hollywood screenplay can and should use. The titular save-the-cat beat is when the main character does something that makes the audience like them despite their flaws. For example, a miserly curmudgeon saves a cat from a tree. What I love about Attack Surface is the save-the-cat beat is directly tied to Masha’s flaw. She makes bank by developing systems to allow autocratic regimes to surveil their own citizens. However, in her time off, she helps those same citizens to avoid governmental surveillance. She is able to compartmentalize her empathy, to feel for these people under the boot of despotic governments, but only to a point. In order to do her job, she can’t allow herself to feel the full weight of her actions. Masha’s flaw and her likability are inextricably linked.
(By the way, there’s an even better book with more goodness called Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. I recommend every writer check it out.)
Let’s dig a bit deeper into Masha. Every good main character has a need and a desire. Masha’s need is to realize that to truly help the victims of surveillance, she has to stop compartmentalizing her empathy, to take on the full guilt of her actions. This leads to the inciting incident when Masha tries to convince Christine, one of the dissidents she works with, to run rather than fight. This upsets Christine who leaves the safety of Masha’s hotel room and gets imprisoned. Masha’s compartmentalization prevents her from feeling the full horror of what happened to Christine. This leads to her losing her job and eventually deciding to help her childhood friend and BLM activist evade government surveillance.
The save-the-cat scene of Charlie Foxtrot Zero is when John shows himself to be a family man. Though he has burned his bridge with his mother and the leadership caste (it makes sense in the sci-fi society), he has made a family that he loves. While it works for the most part, I can’t help feeling I missed an opportunity here. It doesn’t quite have the same two-sides-of-the-same-coin flaw/virtue dynamic that Masha Maximow possesses. The inciting incident happens when John breaks a bone in his hand when he punches Sylvester in the very first scene. The save-the-cat moment happens three scenes later. If I can put the save-the-cat moment before the inciting incident—like Attack Surface—that might help readers become invested in John’s journey.
If any of you would like to read the beginning of Charlie Foxtrot Zero, please check it out here.
And if you have any suggestions or think it’s better as is, let me know at my discord here.