When Miserable People Get Happy Endings: "Unlikeable" Protagonists in Alexis Hall's Writing

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Hello and welcome to Books That Burn with another book essay from Robin! Thank you to Case Aiken, who receives a monthly Patron shoutout. This essay discusses (and moderately spoils) the following works by Alexis Hall:

A brief note: when I first conceptualized this essay, I thought I was going to read every published novel by Alexis Hall, then I intended to discuss at least one book from each of their series. It turns out that their catalog is so extensive that even after taking two months to read (and occasionally, reread) as much of their work as I could get my hands on, I still haven’t gotten to everything. Neither do I, on balance, want to spoil major elements of their entire catalog. Therefore, I haven’t read everything they've written, and I don’t reference every single thing that I read. However, I read enough to be sure of my point generally, and am happy with what I’ve chosen to reference specifically.

Content warnings: this essay contains cursing and discusses fictional depictions of biphobia, homophobia, transphobia, toxic relationships, ableism, and classism. Contains brief mentions of fictional situations such as pregnancy, mental illness, an age-gap relationship, prison, drug use and abuse, an eating disorder, the idea of suicide, and a suicide attempt.

When Miserable People Get Happy Endings: "Unlikeable" Protagonists in Alexis Hall's Writing

Alexis Hall frequently writes "unlikeable" protagonists. The author themself, in the forward to the tenth anniversary edition of GLITTERLAND, makes reference to "unsympathetic protagonists" as a theme of their writing. I find it wonderful and fascinating that they write so many stories with characters I might not want to spend much time around if they were real people, or whose motivations are borne out of an entirely different mindset to my own. And yet, they make for very cathartic protagonists, because when someone generally unlikeable can get a happy ending in the structured and idealized world of a novel, it opens up possibilities of what "likeable" means anyway, and who gets to have happy endings. That most of their protagonists are queer makes this even more important to me, because all I want as a queer reader is for the space of queer possibility to be as varied and messy as anyone else's, without compromising or hiding that queerness. 

"Likeability" is an elusive thing which is very much up to one's personal taste. As a general quality, it is how easy or effortless it is for someone to enjoy or appreciate someone or something else. In fiction, likeability is best understood as a quality which is inversely proportional to how much explanation or demonstration is required of the narrative to induce the reader to appreciate the character in question. A charming rogue might not stop being likeable as the bodies pile up, and a frustrating and belligerent character may be difficult to sympathize with even when the grating edges of their personality are understood. An "unlikeable" protagonist who ends the narrative in a better place than where they started, therefore, is often one where their unlikeable qualities are explained (or even excused) as the story proceeds. If the story is about them "earning" that happy ending, then they might be forced by the narrative to change fundamental things about themselves in order to get better circumstances. This then reinforces the idea that they truly started out unlikeable, because they did, in fact, need to change into someone else who could be liked so they could end up happy. What I love about Hall's writing is that, generally speaking, they do not force characters to contort themselves into new shapes just to gain happiness. Instead, their protagonists figure out how to be okay with their own flaws and to be less reactive to the shortcomings of others. Rather than trying to change how they behave when alone and stressed, they establish community with others so they don't have to bear their burdens alone. Hall doesn't force their characters to change who they are fundamentally, rather they lead them towards accepting something that's already true. This might require internal reflection, and some adjustments to their attitudes, but these small alterations are ones which are better for them, generally, even if they were to never get together with the love interest who inspired them to make these adjustments. Sometimes the story isn't even about the unlikeable person changing anything at all. Instead, it's a chronicle of their bizarre life and off-putting choices, some strange combination of the flash of a magic trick and the horrifying spectacle of a car crash. Across a variety of series and stand-alone works, Hall shows their unlikeable and frequently unsympathetic characters becoming healthier versions of themselves, rather than an idealized version of someone else.

Learning to Be Okay with One's Own Flaws

Some of Hall’s stories aren't about "fixing" a protagonist's flaws (real or imagined), but about them learning to be confident and unashamed of who they are. In ROSALINE PALMER TAKES THE CAKE, Rosaline is a single mother in her late twenties with an eight-year-old daughter, Amelie. She decided to keep the baby when she got pregnant in university, and that derailed the path her parents wanted for her. To her parents, every decision she made from nineteen onward is one more way she messed up her life from how it "should" be. She stayed friends with the ex-girlfriend who cheated on her, she didn't marry the rebound boyfriend who got her pregnant, she dropped out of university to take care of her daughter, she hasn't tried to go back to finish her degree... and those are just the moments from nearly a decade of her life that were crucial enough to make it into the narrative. Her parents dote on their granddaughter, but resent all the decisions that made her existence possible. When the book starts, Rosaline has bought into the idea that her life was derailed in some meaningful way, but she fiercely loves her daughter and would make the same decision to have the baby if she somehow had the chance to go back and do it all over again. Her love, however precious, doesn't pay the bills, and neither does her minimum wage job. She keeps taking her parents' money in order to provide what her daughter needs, but this reinforces a sense that she owes them certain life choices in return. She loves baking and decides to go on a nationally popular baking show as a contestant, hoping to get enough exposure as a middling contestant that she could write about food and get paid for it, or pursue one of the other viable post-reality-tv paths available to people who don't win the competition. 

The idea of "unlikeable" protagonists gets especially weird for queer characters, people whom society will often deem unlikeable or terrible just because of their sexuality. Rosaline is a bisexual woman, and the book opens with a sudden meeting with her daughter's teacher because Amelie said a bad word in class. Except... the "bad word" was "bisexual", because it pertains to queer sexuality, and her daughter isn't yet at the grade level where that's an acceptable topic according to the school. Once she makes it to the first weekend of filming (its own stressful adventure where she meets Alain, one of her competitors), Rosaline meets the rest of the contestants, including Harry. Alain is the kind of well-dressed man with a white-collar job that her parents would want her to marry (we know, because her dad immediately approves of him when they briefly meet). She and Alain have a rocky start to their flirtation, but after a few weekends of filming they are sleeping together. Most of the time the story glosses over the weekdays of work and getting her daughter to school, focusing on each weekend taping of the show and a few important moments during the following days. Rosaline was initially frustrated by Harry because his colloquial speech is full of gendered language (calling her "love" when they don't know each other yet, referring to women as "birds", etc.). When she calls him out on it he thinks about it and comes back later with the decision to call everyone "mate" because, as he says, if he switches to calling women "mate" it'll be fine, but if he starts calling his male friends "love" they won't take it well. It's an expression of his desire to meet Rosaline where he can and address her how she wants to be addressed, but also he's aware of the implications when not everyone in his daily life has the same ideas about gendered language. He could have just called her "mate" and not adjusted his terms anywhere else, instead he thoughtfully makes a change in some deeply ingrained habits. By contrast, Alain slowly becomes more and more unpleasant as the show continues, being classist to Harry and possessively sexist about Rosaline (telling Harry to “stay away from [his] girlfriend” when Harry and Rosaline were just talking). The slow escalation of toxic behavior allows for several possible moments where a reader can realize that something is wrong and that this isn't just a choice between two perfectly fine relationship options for Rosaline. It's a great example of how this kind of person can stay in someone's life well past the first warning signs, depending on what other pressures and stressors are in play. While a reader could be upset at Rosaline for not realizing Alain's bad qualities earlier, what actually plays out is an important part of her narrative arc and growth as a character. A romance novel should usually be more than just a checklist of "look at this fictional person, they're great, the protagonist picked correctly and now everything's fine". While there may be a place for those stories, it's definitely not what Hall writes. Instead, Rosaline's slow realization highlights how insidious classism can be, the way that Alain got past her defenses because he engaged in the "acceptable" forms of bigotry (classism and a bit of regionalism). She was harsh to Harry at first meeting because of the way his gendered references felt sexist, even when they were not mean-spirited. When she doesn't immediately clock Alain as a socially-adept asshole, there's room for her to have a realization and struggle over how to deal with this new information. Alain tries to force her onto a path of his own making, one where her daughter Amelie is a logistical inconvenience and Rosaline's own preferences are secondary to whatever Alain wants. Part of what she learns is that not only is Alain the kind of man her parents want her to end up with, but that that says something bad about her parents rather than indicating anything particularly good about Alain. To whatever degree Rosaline changes, she becomes more confident in her decisions, willing to defend them and not see them as mistakes on the way back to some hypothetically "better" path where she's in medical school, then a doctor, and doesn't have much time with her daughter. She makes the decision to reject her parents' attempts to control her life before the competition ends. That's important, because it means she stands up for herself before she knows whether there's the safety net of tv fame from winning. She wants the path she's on, she wanted it from the moment she knew that Amelie was a possibility, and she is done trying to live up to the expectations of people who don't think that version of life is fulfilling or meaningful. She doesn't think it's a flaw, but if other people see it that way then that's their problem, not hers.

Becoming Less Reactive to the Shortcomings of Others

Sometimes the focus is more on accepting perceived faults and being less reactive to things that someone else can't or won't change. Two "unlikeable" people pairing off with each other, after all, means they get to be happy and other people don't have to feel bad about not wanting to date either of them. This is kind of what occurs in 10 THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED. The book hinges on a crucial misdirection: Sam Becker doesn't actually have amnesia, and does in fact remember that his boss, Jonathan, was responsible for him tripping backwards into a display shower and getting a concussion. This makes for a bold (and possibly unusual) situation in amnesia-based romantic comedies: the thing Sam actually remembers is something that makes Jonathan look worse, not better. Jonathan in work mode is the kind of asshole who would berate someone for disagreeing with him, and doesn't have the momentary spatial awareness to notice that Sam was in danger of tripping if he took a few steps backward. Allowing Jonathan space around Sam where he thinks Sam doesn't know that fact gives Jonathan room to exist with someone whom he thinks doesn't already perceive him as an asshole. He doesn't relax, not really, but he tries to be less of a dick when stuck with someone where his frustrating behavior isn't perceived as a foregone conclusion. Sam, for his part, does remember, but spending time recovering at Jonathan's house gives him context for that dickishness - behaving as though he doesn't remember the incident forces him to treat Jonathan differently (only based on any subsequent frustrating behavior - not on months and months of dealing with him as a distant and exacting employer). In order to keep up the amnesia act, Sam's reactions are more careful, less instinctual. It sets him up to try and understand Jonathan a bit better, and this understanding underpins the eventual romance between them. Jonathan is too prickly of a person to maintain a nice act for very long, and so they reach an equilibrium where Sam understands why Jonathan does what he does and Jonathan has time with someone he doesn't assume already detests him. 

Jonathan loves his family but they're chaotic and generally overwhelming. He wants their lives to be good and he's decided that the best way to do that is to send them lots of money. To Sam, he justifies his lack of a social life and constant drive to be at work by pointing out that this is how he has the money to support his family. Shortly after Sam meets Jonathan's (large, loud) family, he points out that they don't care about the money, they just want to see Jonathan. They care more about a messy Christmas with him than whatever little bit of extra money he'd have to give them if he pushed his employees to sell more and made everyone have a shit time instead of relaxing at the holiday. Jonathan starts the book as a prickly, exacting bastard who wants the people around him to just do their jobs and meet the (completely reasonable!) targets he has set for them so that he can support his relatives, from afar. He ends the book as a prickly, exacting bastard who can accept that sometimes experiences can show love as much as financial support. Jonathan changes his approach, not his personality, and finally has room to understand that people who make different decisions generally have good reasons for them, even if he would have done things another way. 

Reaching for Community

GLITTERLAND follows Ash, a man who is depressed and hasn't felt an identifiable emotion in a long time, mostly (but not necessarily solely) due to his bipolar disorder. He has a one-night stand with a bubbly man from Essex who is brimming with irrepressible enthusiasm, and Ash runs out on him after waking up in a panic attack. Ash goes so far in trying to not remember this insignificant person's name that it doesn't actually appear in the book when the guy first introduces himself. Since I'm not British, I didn't immediately know what was supposedly bad about being from Essex, but as far as I can tell it is subject to similar stereotypes as, say, New Jersey is in the USA. Loud, lots of partying, low-class, and surrounded with a general regionalist disdain that it's difficult to maintain for someplace which is either too close or too far from the area. Ash's mental illness is an explanation for much of what's happening to him, but it's the kind of thing where knowing "why" isn't actually helpful when he's in the middle of it. During his panic, he calls his ex-boyfriend, Niall, to come get him, which disrupts that guy's plans to try and seduce their friend Max at his stag night. Ash thinks he's unlovable due to being bipolar, and his pretty shitty ex-boyfriend seems to be no small part of that. Ash previously attempted suicide, and Niall is the one who found him. The other man now feels like if he ever leaves completely Ash will try again, and succeed this time, but it colors their every interaction with the idea that they're stuck together even as neither of them can quite remember if it was ever good. Niall treats Ash like he's a burden, an inconvenience, and an obligation. It makes the brief positive moments together feel like exceptions to a general rule of misery. They orbit each other and can't quite separate, but also don't feel allowed to move on completely. When he's not actively in crisis, Ash often feels abandoned and alone. This feeds into a cycle of making unwise decisions which generate a crisis, require calling his ex, then let him get a moment of support. Ash only gets the supportive, helpful version of his ex when he's actively in crisis, and as time goes on the crisis-mode becomes less helpful and more guilt-inducing. 

The man from Essex turns out to be Darian, who shows up again, this time at a signing for Ash’s most recent novel. Still struck by having had more than zero positive emotions on that night (before the panic attack ruined it), Ash wants to try again and he and Darian start sleeping together. Ash is socially anxious and very prone to panic attacks, a “simple” trip to the grocery store is anything but so. Darian makes him feel things, his presence helps Ash care about literally anything at all, and he doesn’t want to lose this feeling. After they’ve been together for a bit, Darian invites him to Essex Fashion Week (a one-day event), and Ash, too anxious to go alone, shows up with Niall. Niall insults Darian, outing Ash as bipolar and saying Darian can't take care of Ash, who runs out and finds his way home. Ash's way home was slow enough to let Niall beat him there, and he's waiting on Ash's doorstep, where they finally put words to the toxic dynamic between them. This is a weirdly positive moment for Ash, as he rejects the man who simultaneously resents him for living but couldn’t let him die. Later, they establish a cautious equilibrium as friends where Ash can be his ex’s support sometimes, but he’s no longer on the edge of despair every time they interact.

Unfortunately, Ash was so invested in how Darian made him feel that he lost track of the person underneath. Towards the end of GLITTERLAND, at his friends' wedding rehearsal dinner, he insults Darian to try and keep up with snobbish expectations from strangers and passing acquaintances. It turns out that Darian was right behind him and heard it all, and he runs out of the event. Ash doesn’t chase after him. Six months pass, and Ash is convinced that it’s over. He believes that Darian should neither forgive him nor want him back, but eventually he shows up on Darian’s doorstep to apologize. Darian understands more than Ash could expect, and takes him back anyway. Logistically, their reconnection is possible because Ash remembers the details of where one of Darian’s friends works, tracking her down and getting Darian’s address from her. He’s able to make amends because he met some of Darian’s friends at fashion week and remembered just enough to find this person’s business. This is a significant change from being the guy who slept with Darian and purposefully didn’t note his name, but it’s not some drastic change in his overall personality. Ash finally gives more than zero fucks, and that small willingness turns out to be enough to start mending things between them.

The updated edition of WAITING FOR THE FLOOD contains two stories, "Waiting for the Flood" and the follow-up, "Chasing the Light". Edwin and Marius were together for ten years, then Marius left with no warning and very little explanation, devastating Edwin and leaving him alone in the house they bought together, but which it seems that only Edwin loved. When thinking about "Waiting for the Flood" in the context of this essay, I wasn't sure whether Edwin fit into the string of unlikeable (but not detestable) protagonists. I realized that, given some degree of underlying ableism, he might actually fit as someone who is literally disliked in his everyday life, no matter how nice he is. At the very least, due to his stutter, he feels like a burden in conversations, both a frustration for other people and stressed out himself. His words get stuck, specific syllables causing him problems and making his speech slower than his thoughts. Seeing the frustration on other people's faces, he thinks they'd sometimes rather he not speak at all than make them wait for the end of his thought. In particular, he thought Marius felt this way at various points of their relationship. Edwin has felt isolated and unheard for much of his life, spending his days restoring old books at work and at home. His closest daily relationship is with his neighbor, an elderly woman whose husband died years ago. Finally realizing it's okay to move on, Edwin has a very sweet romance with Adam, a civil engineer who is temporarily in Edwin's neighborhood to work in flood management and recovery. Adam doesn't make Edwin feel like his words are a burden, and in turn Edwin gradually is able to speak more. Community and communal responsibility is a major theme, explored through their discussions of game theory and the practicalities of flood management for a whole neighborhood. At one point, Edwin spends all day helping neighbors sandbag their homes, then assumes his isn’t taken care of yet because he didn’t do it himself. When he finally gets home, there are sandbags waiting by his door, showing that he wasn’t neglected while he did his part for others. 

In "Chasing the Light", Marius is frustrated by seeing Edwin and his new boyfriend, Adam, at Marius's family Christmas, invited there by his mother. He abruptly leaves the gathering and injures his ankle outside the boat of a man named Leo. In combination with the descriptions of him in "Waiting for the Flood", Marius is unlikeable and off-putting. His words are meant to wound, every comment is snide, and to say he makes a game of insulting people would imply more levity in the act than he actually feels. He's as much of a bad guy as "Waiting for the Flood" ever gets. Even softened in the lens of Edwin's lingering good feelings towards him, there's an initial imbalance, disadvantaging Marius because it's often easier to sympathize with the one who was left rather than the one who walked away. "Chasing the Light" gradually reveals why he left, and enables a slow untangling of how he handled things badly, but also the ways they weren't fitting together as people even before the end. Edwin thought they were happy, and Marius didn't know how to communicate when he was going through something very stressful with no fixed trajectory. He wasn't in a position to be happy with anyone, and so he left. He's a reflexively caustic person, perhaps initially trying to balance his parents' cloying supportiveness with metaphorical shoves away, but, as an adult, his instinct is to lash out rather than let himself be pitied. That the other party might not have pity in mind at all doesn't change his frustration with the possibility of it. Somehow, this prickliness endears him to Leo, who helps wrap up his ankle after his fall and insists that he stay on the boat to recover (as it's Christmas, snow is everywhere, and everything is closed). Leo used to be a generally amoral and uncaring person, before going to prison for insider trading. It changed him, hopefully for the better, but he's very clear about the fact that you have to be a pretty terrible person in order for a stint in prison to be a genuine opportunity to become a better one. The person he is now is the right kind of unflappable to take Marius's shit without taking it personally, especially when Marius didn't actually mean it (which is most of the time). 

In the end, Marius finds a community among the people along the river as he lives in the boat with Leo. Edwin and Adam visit Marius at the boat several months after he’s settled in, and briefly witness his interactions with some people who stop by to partake of the coffee Marius has brewing nearby. The visitors are friendly and polite, while Marius answers them entirely in sarcastic retorts, and they proceed through the interaction as if he weren’t a total git. He has found his community, one that accepts the words he offers and doesn’t treat them as blades. Edwin has spent his life wounded by other people's reactions to his speech, and he takes words far more seriously than Marius has either the capacity or inclination to do. Now, apart and making new lives with other people, they can be friends at a distance, each being supported in the ways that suit them best. 

Accepting Something Already True

FOR REAL plays with the paradigm of unlikeability in some fascinating ways. The first, most obvious one is the age gap: Laurie is thirty-seven and Toby is nineteen. They meet at a kink party, and Laurie (a sub) goes to his knees for this confident young dom who just needs someone to take him seriously and trust his control. For some, just the age gap makes this an unlikeable pair, let alone the BDSM. Turning to their actual personalities, Laurie has a nigh-unbreakable emotional wall up between himself when he submits and how much intimacy he allows in the rest of his life. I didn't find him distasteful to read, but a huge part of that is, that as a reader, I knew what he was thinking, and how much his time with Toby means to him. Toby, on the other hand, only has what Laurie actually says and does, and while Laurie will be naked on his knees for Toby at a moment's notice, he continually refuses to reciprocate Toby's sincere "I love you" with anything but silence. 

Eventually, Toby reaches a point where he takes Laurie’s silence as meaning that he doesn’t love him or take him seriously. He breaks up with Laurie, flinging his key to the ground and leaving abruptly at the end of a weird and stressful day. This flips their usual dynamic where Toby shows up on Laurie’s door and has to wait for him. Now, Laurie has to show up in Toby’s space if he wants any chance at getting him back. He remembers enough about Toby’s mother to figure out where she lives and look for Toby there. It works, Toby shows up the next day and is moved by finding Laurie there. Laurie loves Toby, and has for a while, but it's only when the choice is between acknowledging his feelings or losing Toby that Laurie is able to lower his walls and communicate with words in addition to his body. The reversal is important, with Laurie moving out of his comfort zone in a way that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with intimacy. Laurie finally tells Toby he loves him and has for a while, and they agree to try and make it work. They can't promise forever, but they know they want to be together now and they want to see how it goes from here. 

Internal Reflection and Attitude Adjustment

In A LADY FOR A DUKE, the specter of unlikability weighs heavily on Viola Carroll. She is living as a woman, as her true self, aware that society at large would not be pleased were they to learn that she was not dead as a man in battle at Normandy, but alive and well in her brother's household, lady's companion to her sister-in-law. Possibly the best example in Hall’s work of exchanging isolation for belonging and working on themself to be a better person, is that of Viola’s childhood best friend, the Duke of Gracewood, who did not handle his friend’s death well. Alone, mourning his closest friend's death for the past two years, Gracewood is a recluse, shouting at the servants and making his teenage sister, Mira, miserable in his melancholy. He doesn't know how to talk to Mira (partly because he was raised to make decisions alone and he doesn't think to consult her on her own life). Their relationship is strained by his absences for boarding school in her childhood and his new role as her guardian now that their father has passed and he is the Duke. Viola, for her part, is concerned that Gracewood will find her reprehensible, that he will hate her. Indeed, after meeting Viola as herself and beginning to fall for her, Gracewood has some all-too-common transphobic reactions when he realizes that Viola and his supposedly deceased friend are the same being. It's a difficult scene to read, especially as a trans person. Gracewood seems caught in between dissonant emotions, hurt by descriptions about reality which don't hold true when viewed simultaneously. In his pain and anger, he centers himself, upset at Viola for being alive and for his boyhood friend being dead, distraught that she took so long to appear and frustrated that she appeared at all. If his friend had stayed dead, he thinks he could have moved on, he assumes that if Viola had revealed herself sooner, he would have gladly welcomed her and been saved years of pain. The fact that so far in his grief he's become dependent on laudanum and had made moves toward suicide makes it quite clear to the reader that he would not, in fact, have gotten over it if he continued to think his friend was dead. As a scene, it's a wonderfully succinct example of something queer people experience all the time when coming out to someone whose reaction they weren't sure how to anticipate: the person becomes upset both at having to deal with the information, and with the implication that they weren't trusted to know it sooner. Fortunately for Viola, Gracewood's secondary reaction after she flees his estate is to realize the unfairness of his impulse, that if he has, in fact, reacted badly to this knowledge then he has hurt his oldest and dearest friend, and validated her trepidation in coming to him. He then takes it upon himself to work on this and other areas of his life, processing the pain and shock without further burdening Viola with the storm of his reactions. At least a month later, after weaning himself off laudanum and taking much more time to think, he visits Viola in London. He has taken Viola's sister-in-law's advice to bring Mira to London to have a Season. There, he apologizes to Viola for having treated her unfairly and not understanding how much she must have been hurting for the years before transitioning. 

As a pair, I found Gracewood and Viola the most likeable of Hall's protagonists (with Adam and Edwin a close second). Theirs is fundamentally an arc of discovering meaning and happiness with each other, regardless of what society will think. This is, in fact, made possible in no small part by Gracewood's wealth and status as a Duke, something specifically called out later on. After hearing of Gracewood's melancholy, but before she has traveled to his estate, Viola tries to explain the situation to her little nephew, who wants to know if Gracewood is a wicked person for being so mean. Before even having seen him again, Viola assures the child that Gracewood is not wicked, he's just sad and needs help. This scene helps establish the narrative's angle on Gracewood and Viola, that neither of them is fundamentally a bad person, but that they both are having trouble understanding themselves as anything else. Viola has good reason to think of herself as disliked by society. She has given up a position of relative power which few cis men in her position would even consider abandoning, in a way that seems utterly incomprehensible to her former peers. As a woman with a non-normative body, she thinks she has no opportunity for love or building a new family. Viola has mostly accepted her status as a spinster aunt, too old to marry and content to accompany her sister-in-law and help raise her nephew. To a modern reader, Viola is actually very likeable, witty and tender, and it is mostly the biases of her society which make her believe she is lacking in some fundamental way. Gracewood, for his part, first appears in ways which require explanations and exceptions in order to excuse his behavior and understand his pain. Grief-stricken and struggling with drug dependency, he has lost track of reality and requires Viola's calm company to come back to himself. His initial harsh reaction to learning Viola's identity necessitates some rapid character growth in order for the reader to accept him as a love interest for Viola. That he puts in the work, of his own volition and before attempting to see Viola again, is part of what makes him so good for her, and gives the rest of their relationship the support it needs for them to fly in the face of social disdain. 

Change Inspired by Others

BOYFRIEND MATERIAL is a fake-dating romance between Luc O'Donnell - tangentially famous child of two rock stars who have long since broken up - and Oliver Blackwood - barrister, ethical vegetarian, and person so buttoned up that it seems shocking that he's heard of fun, let alone had any without feeling several kinds of guilty. Luc needs a boyfriend because he works for a charity trying to preserve dung beetles, and many of the (white, straight, wealthy) donors have been made uneasy by the public perception that he is an irresponsible party-boy just like his rockstar father. They're careful not to say that they're disturbed that he's gay, but they might be less bothered if he were the "right" kind of homosexual. Luc was devastated when his last serious boyfriend betrayed him and sold the story of their relationship to the tabloids, but trying to keep things light with a smattering of brief encounters has just given those same tabloids more material to view him as an irresponsible partier. Oliver needs a boyfriend because his parents expect him to have a date for an upcoming event at their house. He's also the kind of barrister/ethical vegetarian who has thought-out reasons for everything he does in a way that makes people around him feel like he's judging them for not having come to the same conclusions and lifestyle changes (even though he isn't judging them). Connected by a mutual friend, Luc and Oliver agree to be fake boyfriends for a few months, just until both of their major events are over. Luc has interacted with Oliver before, and is sure that the other man detests him. Luc seems very much like he has undiagnosed ADHD, with constant lateness, difficulty focusing on boring things, and a tendency to assume people don't like him even when they're his friends and obviously want to spend time with him. The key to this working as a romance (besides the obvious opportunities presented by an "opposites attract" situation) is that neither of them are terrible people in a morally complicated way, they just are very intense versions of their kind of person. 

Oliver is loyal to toxic parents who don't seem to reciprocate his devotion, and he has conflated their assertions that they love him with the idea that therefore their choices are actually good ones for him. This gets untangled a bit more in the sequel, HUSBAND MATERIAL, but it's very much in keeping with Oliver being the kind of person who would decide to make himself inconvenienced on a daily basis because it aligns with a principle he's trying to uphold (such as vegetarianism). He holds fast to his decisions once he makes them, using rules and routines to structure his life, in everything from a specific annual cabinet-cleaning day to the daily discipline of not eating foods he loves because they no longer align with his values. Oliver changes in a lot of little ways just in the first two books of this series, but part of why it works so well is that these changes are reflections of underlying consistency in who he is as a person. None of them affect his likeability (or lack thereof). He doesn't change for Luc. Instead, he makes space in the structure of his life for Luc to align with or deviate from Oliver's routines. His constancy lets Luc be flighty, and Oliver's routines give Luc something to ground himself when he needs it. 

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc tells Oliver that the other man might have an eating disorder, given his strange relationship with food, alternating between denial and indulgence followed by exercise to mitigate his guilt (and the calories). What would, in some other author's hands, be given enormous focus is instead a relatively minor detail which affects several scenes but doesn't take over the story. Two years later, in HUSBAND MATERIAL, Oliver has been seeing a therapist and working on not obsessing over his body. He was striving for a level of physical fitness which is almost impossible to keep while having a healthy relationship to food and nutrition, and is now trying to not punish himself for being less than perfectly cut at all times. Luc is the one who pointed out the potential issue, but Oliver took him seriously and has been putting in the work to make himself healthier mentally as well as physically. 

As for Luc, he changes from a flighty person who doesn't realize how much he's loved to a slightly less flighty person who tries to put in the work to show his mom, his friends, and Oliver how much he appreciates them as people as well as needing their support in his life. The flurry of weddings in HUSBAND MATERIAL gives him ample opportunity to be materially useful to a bunch of people who are important to him, as well as to see them show up for him and Oliver in very stressful circumstances. All the planning throws into stark relief the differences in their upbringing and how important their sexuality is to each of them. For Luc, being gay and engaging in "queer culture" is this vibrant thing that brings him joy. He doesn't care if much of the popular symbolism is an American import, what matters is that it feels important to him. Oliver doesn't feel represented by rainbows, and doesn't mentally catalog his friends' orientations as part of how he relates to them. Tensions escalate between Luc and Oliver as their wedding approaches, symbolized by the idea of whether to have a rainbow balloon arch at the wedding. The more it comes up, the less the actual arch matters and the more it epitomizes the ways that this ceremony historically tied to heterosexuality doesn't seem like it can represent Luc and Oliver's relationship with each other as two very different kinds of people. If it's the traditional wedding that Oliver envisions, then for most of his life that image has categorically excluded him from participating, as a gay man. If it's the queer celebration that Luc craves, then it won't feel like a wedding to Oliver. This resolves at the last moment in a way that preserves who each of them is and what they really value, regardless of what anyone else might think about their choices.

Not Changing At All

THE AFFAIR OF THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER is a Sherlock Holmes retelling, with Watson (Captain John Wyndham) as a trans man, Sherlock (Ms. Shaharazad Haas) as a bisexual woman, and Irene Adler (Miss Eirene Viola) as a former lover of Ms. Haas being blackmailed in her current engagement. Shaharazad Haas is brash and confident; a flagrant drug-user and experimenter with substances, generally engaging in the behaviors which made the original version of Sherlock Holmes so frustrating and brilliant. She proceeds without regards for the well-being of others but is always taking up space, generally supposed to be unlikeable or at least annoying. However, there's a certain threshold of general competence which induces those around her to stop complaining and accept the frustrations in order to achieve results. Shaharazad Haas has that level of competence and brilliance, where the spectacle and the solutions outweigh the strange inconveniences of her acquaintance. Because the story is filtered through John Wyndham's perspective, there's the frequent implication that he has removed a lot of swearing from the story. Most (but not all) of the swearing is from Shaharazad. This seems intended by Wyndham to preserve the reader's delicate sensibilities, but does much more to establish himself as a diligent recorder while still a relatively prudish character. Shaharazad changes a little bit, in that that she has new experiences and incorporates them into her ongoing understanding of the world, but she does not, in a narrative sense, have to change in order for the plot to progress and the story to conclude satisfactorily. Wyndham gradually grows to accept her peculiarities and habits even if he doesn't understand her (as evidenced by how he refuses to accurately record her filthy language). 

Challenging "Likeability" As A Goal

Alexis Hall repeatedly portrays queer characters with qualities which, under some other author, would be meant to make them "unlikeable" as they are, requiring some fundamental change in order to "earn" a happy ending and endear themselves to the reader. Instead, Hall positions them to improve some aspect of their lives without requiring them to change their entire personality. Often, there's a core awareness that two people being in a frustrating relationship doesn't automatically mean that either person requires fixing, but it probably means that they are not good for each other in that moment. This is the case for Rosaline and her parents when she needs them to stop trying to control her life, and for Edwin and Marius, who are much better friends at a distance than they were as a couple. Because Hall's protagonists aren't required to change themselves, sometimes the answer is that they, in turn, need to accept the irritating and intractable facets of someone else, such as when Sam and Jonathan become a couple after spending time together under circumstances that forced both of them to pause before reacting each other's irritating behavior. When characters have difficulty being alone and without support, Hall sets them up to find community and learn to thrive as best they're able, finally accepting help from others. Ash and Luc learn to see the people who have stuck with them and (mostly) stop waiting for their friends to decide they're terrible people and abandon them. This is often paired with accepting the truth that they already love and are loved. If they behave in ways that do require them to make an apology, they figure out what the other person needs from them and try to provide it, reflecting and adjusting their attitudes without any expectation that they'll be able to restore their previous relationship. Such is the case with Gracewood's apology to Viola for his transphobia, or when Ash takes six months to work up the nerve to find Darian and apologize for his insults, and when Laurie shows up at Toby's place after a fight to see if it's not too late to work things out. Their changes, when they do happen, are inspired by caring about other people and wanting to be better friends and partners to them. Luc and Oliver fit their lives together but don't expect each other to cast away the personalities that endeared them to one another in the first place. And, finally, the story might not be about them changing anything at all, but living out their boisterous and strange existence, as is the case for Ms. Shaharazad Haas.

Hall writes protagonists who lean into strange specificities to be wilder and more wonderful versions of themselves, filling pages with vibrant queer characters who fumble their way into better lives. Their "flaws" make them better, their "unlikability" doesn't make them unlovable, and they find ways to be happy, if that's what they want from their story.


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