Did you see the movie Zero Dark Thirty? If you did, there’s no way you’d forget Maya.
At the very least you saw the trailers and know that Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) is the CIA analyst who was instrumental in helping to track down bin Laden.
What’s fantastic is that Maya is a real-life, flesh-and-blood woman.
What’s not so fantastic is that if any one of us writers created her and put her in a novel, we’d get nothing but grief.
Maya has no personal life. During the several years she and her teammates hunt for bin Laden, she obsessively works long hours at the office and then goes home to crash. She learns to feel no sympathy for the man her colleagues are torturing. She has no romance ever. She has crappy social skills. Doesn’t give a damn about networking. Uses the F word like a gun. When she thinks her obsessive hunt is being undermined, she furiously shouts down her boss. She makes it clear to a soldier that she wants him to KILL bin Laden.
There’s a wonderful scene when Maya is back at Langley and in a closed door meeting with a few men and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta. The topic of the meeting is about whether a) bin Laden is definitely in a compound in Abbottobad, and b) were they ready to go after him there? Panetta looks at Maya and asks, “Who are you?” Maya replies, “I’m the motherf—– who found him.”
Oh God I love that scene.
Yet if I put that dialogue in a novel, I’d get no end of grief. “Does she really have to use language like that?” so many people would ask me – especially women. “Must she be so unlikeable? Can’t you make her more sympathetic? Someone we could identify with?”
For me, the screenwriter (Mark Boal) was brilliant when he made Maya the main character. This is a hard-as-nails story about a brutal secret war, and Maya played a hard-as-nails role in it. Yet ironically, what makes her a riveting character in a real-life drama might put off many readers of fiction.
Is this where non-fiction has it all over fiction?
When I was writing The Compass Master and now with my upcoming Charity MacCay books, I didn’t have to strain to make Layla and Charity likeable because I genuinely like them. Still, I envy the extremely rare fiction writer who can create a lead character – especially a female lead – who is difficult or even impossible to like but you can’t stop reading her story. Think of Scarlet O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander. They aren’t just characters, they’re ferocious forces of nature.
And in the realm of non-fiction, so is Maya. Yet I really, really like her.
What about your own characters? Have you ever attempted, or just been tempted, to create a difficult, unusual, on-the-edge extreme MC that would shock readers? Did anyone try to discourage you?