Anyone notice how long Vince Flynn’s Memorial Day stayed “on the nightstand” in the sidebar? If you did, you’re probably thinking I’m the slowest reader on the planet. In my defense, I (1) finished it a long time ago and have read another since then and (2) I’m the slowest reader on the planet–primarily because I don’t have time for pleasure reading anymore with my editing jobs, judging responsibilities and critiquing opportunities.
Neither Flynn’s book nor the other I read were in keeping with my 2010 resolution to read all the books Donald Maass used as examples in his The Fire in Fiction. I’ve read only one book in fulfillment of the resolution, Red Leaves by Thomas Cook. (Actually, after seeing how many books Maass used in his how-to, I think my 2010 resolution will be the resolution for the decade, not just the year.)
Now, I’ve moved on to the third book Maass mentions in his first chapter (I ordered the second, but it never came in): Company Man, by Joseph Finder. Chapter One of Maass’ book is entitled “Protagonists and Heroes,” and Finder’s novel filled the bill for the flawed protagonist, a protagonist with enemies, hated by the bulk of the other characters in the novel.
Although no one else in Nick Conover’s story world likes him, the reader must find something redeemable about him to be willing to continue reading–and Conover’s not off to a good start early in Chapter One. As the CEO of an office furniture company, he’s sitting in his workspace listening with barely veiled ennui as his chief financial officer explains why more lay-offs are necessary in a company that has already laid off over 5000 blue collar employees. While the CFO delivers a dry presentation of why even more families need to be wrecked for the sake of the company, Nick gazes at the photographs of his own family already wrecked by the death of his wife. This brings out mixed emotions: disgust that Nick doesn’t seem to care about his employees, and sympathy for him and his kids for their loss.
But later in the chapter, Finder shifts our opinion toward Nick and brings him more into our favor. He presents a confrontation between Nick and a disgruntled employee. In this shouting match we learn that Nick and the company aren’t entirely bad guys; they’d offered ways for all the employees to keep their jobs while other plants were shutting down and having their manufacturing done in China. But the workers refused to make the necessary sacrifices, and the company had no choice but to cut their workforce.
The argument, and the courageous way Nick presented it, lands the reader squarely on his side even though it doesn’t save him from the animosity of virtually every other character in the novel.
Finder’s formula to make a character likeable:
- present him as human and flawed (Nick was bored with the CFO’s presentation)
- give him a flawed home life (the deceased wife, with all the emotional turmoil her absence brings)
- give him a viable, defensible excuse for his actions (he wouldn’t have had to lay off so many if the workers had been willing to sacrifice)
- present him as strong and fair (Nick faced the disgruntled employee without back-up from security, even though the secretary threatened to call them in)
- set him in harm’s way (the remainder of the book is about the dangerous repercussions from the lay-offs)