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My Problem with You: Examining a Bad Protagonist

Nice cover, but...
You would expect that in a negative review of a novella in a second-person, the reviewer would bring up the POV as one of the bad things about the book.

In my opinion, it's a complete non-factor. I'm usually not the sort of person who is bothered by such mechanics, and in this case, it's actually executed quite beautifully.

Breath-taking prose doesn't cut it when the book's protagonist falls flat.

This was the case with You by Charles Denoit

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance for ripping this book apart. I don't want to, but I don't want people modeling their protagonist off of this book's protagonist. I'm going to explain why.





Three Broken Pillars
For those who hadn't have the chance to read the book, Kyle Chase is an..."interesting" character. He's considered a hoodie, the sort of person you would see hanging with the bad crowd with little care about the painful future he's going to suffer. He's the type of person that is really smart but wastes his intelligence. He hates life.

You would think that same character would redeem himself.

He doesn't.

It killed the book for me, keeping me one step from putting it down and never picking it up again.

In a nutshell, Kyle Chase is:
  • Unsympathetic
  • Unmotivated
  • Boring

Unsympathetic:

Every protagonist has something they would die for. Problem is, Kyle doesn't have one. He's quite apathetic. It shows in the stark narrative, where he practically drifts from incident to incident. Plenty of injustices and plain old wrong things pop up, but he leans more on inaction than action.

In the couple of first person sequences throughout the book, it's clear he's the kind of person most people don't want to hang out with. He has attitude, and not of the good kind.

The closest bit of sympathy he has is his sister, who is the most sympathetic character in the entire book. She is mentioned a couple of times throughout the first half of the book, and then brought out twice.

While we pain at the fact that her teacher doesn't see her intelligence (how the school system is flawed is a major point in this novella), she is never used in a way that makes Kyle sympathetic or motivated to do anything in particular. Except cure his boredom. Which he brought down on himself.

 Unmotivated:

As an extension of the first point, it's hard to sympathize with Kyle's situation. Sure, life is hard for him, but it's partly his fault. It's explained that he let himself go on a theoretical fall back in 8th grade. If it wasn't for that, he would be at a better school, and his parents wouldn't be on his back.

In most cases, these kinds of protagonists either try to solve a problem within this hellhole, or they're clawing their way out of it, even if it means bleeding their fingers out.

Kyle? He's aiming for nothing. He has no motivation.

It's hard to relate to a character that's aiming for nothing. Sure, many people submit toward a bad life, but those are usually not desirable people. At the very least, there are people that are stuck in a bad situation but try to make good of it.

Boring:

And this relates to the first two points. One problem with Kyle is the fact that it's dull watching Kyle go through his life, if he's not aiming for something. It matches the somewhat melancholic and stark tone, but it's quite shallow.

Plus, the antagonist completely overshadows him. He's larger-than-life. At one point, I wish it was his story I was reading--except for the fact that the entire point was that he's supposed to be an enigma, with the explanation behind his motive unexplained.

Now, if a character is unsympathetic, unmotivated, and boring, why read his story? If you're the kind of person who hates 2nd person, this story can kill you.

Saving Grace:

Only the ending saved the book.

It was only when the antagonist finally pushes Kyle into a situation where he was truly trapped, and not of his own accord, when I finally wanted justice done. Regardless of what actions and inactions he had done, he didn't deserve what happens to him, and it's cathartic seeing him confront the antagonist--and then see his fatal flaw undone him in the end.

The problem with this that it took the entire book for the plot to reach such a point. It shouldn't take that long, even if it's only a novella.

You is a tragedy, with Kyle's flaw being apathy. Problem is, unlike many good tragedy, there was never a high point to compare his fall to.

What's the Point?

Not that kind of mouse!
That what I wondered after finishing the book.

A few months later, I stumbled onto MICE, which stands for Milieu (setting), Idea, Character, and Event. These are the four points a story can have. For example, Lord of the Rings is primarily Milieu. Much genre fiction like mystery novels are Event stories.

It's clear that Character is right out. Kyle isn't the point. It seems like an examination of the flawed setting (Milieu), but the point wasn't to explore it, Kyle isn't searching for an answer for a question, and the book isn't trying to prove a point (Idea), and the chain of events aren't tight enough to be an Event story.

What is it then?

What You Is:

The main problem is that You, for the most part, is very experimental.

It's primarily a literary novel, being a strange type of realistic story with an implausible antagonist. It's a novella with no chapters. And it's in the second-person.

Kyle defines all definitions of being a protagonist. The book is a slice-of-life of a dreary world.

Experimental books are very hit-or-miss. It missed with me.

It likely missed with lots of other readers.

Conclusion:

Now, this book got primarily positive reviews, but few of them account for Kyle. Yet, as a protagonist in a Young Adult world, he's a huge factor, if not the factor that can make-or-break a book.

My point I'm trying to make is: make sure we want to read the protagonist's story. Make sure there is a point behind the prose. Make us want to see the protagonist change.

And if he doesn't and end up dooming himself? Actually make the journey interesting and entertaining. Make the read worth it.

Besides, 2nd person is unconventional enough.