Perplexed, Puzzled and Perturbed


Happy New Year!

This is a follow up, a continuation of my last post. It’s the last time I bitch about this, I promise.

I’m perplexed.

I’ve been told, several times, that the main character in my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, is unlikeable. His attitude on entering his new shcool, the way he sees the other students as beneath him, his swagger and unrelenting meaness make him unrelatable. I need to soften him up, give him reasons for his bullying. Give him heart, so readers can accept and root for him.

When I started this book, I wanted Alex to be unlikeable. So, when he becomes the bullied, the reader doesn’t immediately sympathize with him. I have done as agents and several readers suggested. I have smoothed the rough edges and given him the motivation needed to explain his actions.

Then a book on a store shelf caught my attention — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully. The cover seemed to suggest that it could be similar, if not spot on, to Alex Bullied.

I bought the book and read it. It’s written in comic book style — the text looks handwritten and the story is told with drawings. It is set to resemble a journal.

The kid writing the journal is a bully in the first degree. He’s been caught dunking a smaller student head-first in a toilet. His mother is furious, his principal is at his wit’s end. So he is forced to see a therapist who insists he keep a journal and write down his feelings, to get to the root of his aggression.

His journal, instead, is a how-to manual for bullying. This kid is unrepentant. he glories in his bullying. In the end he’s as big a jerk as when the book began. I never had any sympathy or empathy for him. I never cared about him at all.

Not at all like Alex Bullied. Alex changes over the course of my story. He comes to understand that what he’s done is wrong and he’s sorry.

So I’m puzzled.

The author of Journal of a Schoolyard Bully is Farley Katz, an American humorist and a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker. This is his first book, followed by a sequel — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully: Cyberbully. I didn’t read that one but I’ll take a guess that this time around we’ll learn how to bully online.

Agents and editors are more forgiving of an author with an established name, I assume. Even if writing cartoons is his primary expertise. I say this with all due respect for Mr. Katz.

I’m just perturbed.

Maybe it’s true that an as-yet-unpublished writer cannot defy conventions, although I’m a bit confused as to what the conventions are.

I will stand by the revisions I made. I like this warmer, baffled, reactionary Alex. He does seem more fleshed out. By the end of the story, he has a change of heart. And the story does not glorify bullying.

Querying begins again in a few weeks. Stay tuned.


3 thoughts on “Perplexed, Puzzled and Perturbed

  1. kgbird

    I’m confused as well. Why do they want the bully to be more sympathetic? Some people are just sadistic , others get off on the power trip. Kids know this. Are they thinking the parents won’t like it?

  2. George Williams

    Hi Brix

    I read your post with great interest. You are puzzled, you say. Such is clear. You write that you are defying conventions in your story, but as I see it, you are following conventions to the letter. You have an Ebenezer Scrooge scenario: Character is bad, then learns his lessons and becomes good. The end. Happily ever after.

    Katz’ graphic novel defies that convention. There is (as I understand it) no happy ending, no tribute to justice, goodness or rightness. It is this defiance that makes publishers perk up, the twist, the unexpected outcome. Libraries and bookstores are filled with endless volumes where the protagonist sees the light and becomes a better person. Ta dah! Happily. Ever. After.

    The approach in Katz’ story offer details on how to be a bully is another defiance and is not automatically an instruction manual for jerks and bastards. It may be the opposite. Having knowledge of how a bully thinks, feels and acts might just be the best possible defense against such abhorrent behavior. Artists are often good at portraying horrors in uncomfortable detail in order to make a statement more succinct and immediate than their conventional counterparts, and many times produce better results.

    I have great respect for the graphic novelist who has to tell the story concisely, panel by panel, and still is able to convey intense emotions while delivering a great story with a beginning, middle and end, doing it all with a minimum of words, using a picture-per-panel, each one potentially frame-able.

    I wish you all the best on your journey to become a published author. It ain’t easy, but what of worth is?

    In the theatrical sense, break a leg.




  3. At my writer’s group this weekend, we discussed likable/unlikable main characters. A reader has to feel something other than dislike for a character at the beginning of the story. People don’t read about people they don’t like/connect with. If you have an unsympathetic character there is a technique called “save the cat” (I think there’s even a writing book of the same name). The main character does something nice/heroic/compassionate (saving a cat) and that buys the reader’s empathy even if the MC’s subsequent behavior is unlikable.

    It seems like you’ve made Alex more sympathetic, but if you keep getting the same feedback after you start querying, saving the cat is something you might want to check out.

    Good luck, Keep us updated!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s