One thing I’ve noticed lately is that there is a type of protagonist – and type of cast of characters – that I run into way more often in popular Chinese-language fiction than popular English language fiction. Namely, the kind of protagonist who a lot of readers end up hating because they do bad things, yet their motivations are so understandable that they are not villains, and sometimes have enough saving graces that the reader can’t help loving AND hating them at the same time. And an entire cast of characters who are mostly unlikeable, yet also have understandable motivations, and end up creating a trainwreck so compelling that readers can’t put the book down.
An example is the novel Love in the Rain (煙雨濛濛). For those who aren’t familiar with it, one can get at least the flavor of the story from the theme songs of the 1986 TV adaptation (take particular note of how, er, courteous the characters are towards each other in the clips). The only characters in the novel I find likeable are a) the protagonist’s mother and b) the protagonist’s best friend. Pretty much every other character of any significance manages to do something thoroughly awful at some point in the novel. Even though it’s a ‘romance’ novel, it’s really about the relationship between the protagonist and her father. One of my favorite moments is when he says ‘You should have been born as a son when I was in my prime, then you would have become the second me,’ and she replies ‘I don’t want to be the second you,” and he replies ‘I also wouldn’t want you to be the second me.’ She gets to see him at his worst, and the irony is that a) it inspires her to be herself at her worst, which is much like her father as his worst and b) she eventually discovers (when it is too late) that the qualities she has at her best, are also qualities her father has. Anyway, I found the novel incredibly frustrating to read because I constantly felt angry at the characters, but at the same time, I kept turning the pages, and it has stayed with me a long time.
Another example, which is (mostly) available in English translation, is Crane Startles Kunlun.
Another example is (long-time readers of this blog ought to know who I’m going to mention) Yang Guo from Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. I personally love him, but a lot of readers hate him, and I can understand that. He does some really shitty things in the story (as do most of the major characters at some point).
One of the things I appreciate about Chinese-language pop fiction compared to English-language pop fiction is that it is much easier to find stories about characters who are a mix of good and bad in a way which is psychologically compelling, and do not fit the hero/villain dichotomy as clearly. By comparison, pretty much all of the main characters in Harry Potter, with the very significant exception of Snape, and possibly Malfoy, have straightforward motivations. Ditto Lord of the Rings (with significant exception of Gollum). Ditto The Hunger Games (caveat: I’ve only read the first book). I could go on.
I feel there is something true about these characters who do such horrible things, yet do not necessarily do them because they are horrible people. And there is something strangely reassuring about people who do horrible things, yet sometimes also do wonderful things. It’s also just refreshing to read a style of fiction which is relatively less common in English.