I recently attended a workshop (at the Wordstock Festival) that focused on a list of fifteen ways to writing better protagonists. You see, sometimes a writer has a dilemma because their protagonist is not necessarily a hero. There is a scale that goes something like: super-villain – – villain – – unsympathetic – – sympathetic – – hero – – angel. Novelists should be avoiding the extremes, but their main characters might not necessarily be a hero, or even entirely sympathetic.
When your main character isn’t a hero, then what are they? They might be a regular, ordinary, flawed human being. Think about your average person – someone in your office, on the street, whatever. Do you really want to read a whole book about this jackass? No, of course not. And in the case that your protagonist is a “hero” – are they someone who is untouchable, invincible? It doesn’t make for a very interesting story if there is no risk factor for a character.
Some of the points this workshop tried to make were along those lines. Making sure your ordinary people have one very interesting quality worth reading about. Making sure your heroic types have a flaw or two to bring them back down to Earth. And making sure your normally unsympathetic types (criminals, anti-heroes, losers, jackasses, etc) are fixed (for lack of a better word) so that readers can like or relate to some part of them, rather than be disgusted or annoyed with them the whole time.
All in all, it was an interesting topic. It helped me to understand why my wife hated one of my main characters after only reading a few chapters of my first draft of Unexpected Rain (my NaNoWriMo 2009 novel). He starts out as an innocent man accused. He’s panicking about his situation, and he comes off as blubbering, defensive, and even self-righteous in his indignation over being wrongly accused. He’s the guy at the beginning of a Law and Order episode that you can’t wait to be exposed; oh sure, buddy, likely story – every criminal claims to be innocent, but you’re going to get yours some time in the next 52 minutes!
But in this story, the accused really is innocent. They are a protagonist and right off the bat the reader is turned off by them. First impressions are everything with characters, just like with people in real life. Lesson learned: if you’re going to start a character’s first scene as a defensive one, tread carefully. Find a way to make them relatable, or at least find a way to make the reader see where they are coming from. If you’re writing in a perspective that let’s the reader know the thoughts of the character, use the inner voice to bring a sense of sanity to the character who might be acting less sane that normal due to panic and stress.
Despite how helpful the workshop’s main points were, the lecturer needed some examples. She reasoned that it would be tough to use examples from books when facing a room full of strangers. What were the chances we’d read any of the same books she might choose as examples? So instead, she opted to use popular movies. This is the point where the lecture took a wrong turn.
I’ve never heard the name Jack Sparrow uttered so many times in an hour and a half since actually watching The Pirates of the Caribbean.
Jack Sparrow was her go-to unsympathetic protagonist. How do you make a pirate likable? Surround him with foul, disgusting, dirty pirates that make him look attractive by comparison. Give him flashes of bravery and heroism (save the girl from drowning when “better men” fail to do so). Make him wronged by even lower characters (the other pirates stole his ship and left him for dead). Even giving this protagonist a grand entrance was mentioned (remember how he steps off the sinking boat and onto the dock?).
I get the point. All of these factors made a pirate – an outlaw, a criminal, normally unsympathetic – a “better protagonist”. But there were other bullet points in that list of fifteen – like making your character attractive and/or charming. If your protagonist is unsympathetic because they are a criminal or something, but they are attractive and charming, I can see how that helps the audience tolerate them – I’m buying the logic. But when our lecturer falls back to her stand-by example on these points, that’s when I realized that what makes Captain Jack Sparrow a better protagonist is not entirely the writing, so much as the acting by Johnny Depp. Charm and attractiveness are a little difficult to write in a novel with the same effect of that a veteran screen-actor pulls off. I mean, come on – write that same Jack Sparrow character into a novel and see how easy it is to capture the indefinable sex appeal and charisma of someone like Johnny Depp.
Even putting those qualities aside, there are other on-screen tricks you can’t write. Are you going to write in the eye-liner, or the fact that his clothes are unruffled no matter what the action? No, you’re probably not – you have to come up with some kind of verbal version of eye-liner, some other way to highlight the character’s qualities that make them attractive using only words. It’s going to take a different kind of effort than casting actors.
The lecturer’s other examples included Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind – greedy and single-minded, but an underdog and holds his ground among the other assholes around him) and Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford – heroic but flawed thanks to an early-exposed fear of snakes; her reasoning, not mine – fans of the movie would be quick to point out that Indy is far from perfectly heroic in the scenes leading up to the snake in the plane). Well-written characters, sure – but you can’t tell me the caliber of these actors has nothing to do with the likableness of the protagonists they played.
Granted, the lecturer stressed that the items in the list of “fifteen ways to a better protagonist” are to be picked and chosen from – and that standing alone, each of the points are not enough to turn the unsympathetic protagonist into someone more enjoyable (or even tolerable) to read. Overall, it was valuable information, and I don’t regret attending the workshop one bit.
The exercise of identifying the flaws in the lecturer’s examples made me realize something – I was writing too much “on-screen dialog” into my NaNo novel last year. I didn’t have great actors to fall back on, to express more than just the words coming out of their mouths. When I went back and re-read what I wrote later and edited it to hell, I encountered this problem. You can write that someone “is cool” as they deliver a line, but it’s not the same as seeing an actor act cool.
For example: if you were going to write the Don Draper character (played by Jon Hamm in AMC’s Mad Men) into an ink-on-paper story, how do you think it would work out? If you just write dialog like you hear it in Mad Men, you’re going to have one major asshole for a protagonist. There’s something about the way the actor shows that his character is calm, cool, and in control at times that will be difficult to capture on the page. If I literally just write “he is calm, cool, and in control”, you don’t get the chills that you get when you see the actor playing out the situation on screen. How do you capture those moments when there’s just a hint of regret or remorse on the actor’s face when he icily treats someone poorly or issues a directive he knows is amoral? Are you going to write that even in his most despicable moments, men still want to be him and women still find him “delicious” (as my wife so delicately puts it)? Credit is due to the writing, but we have to recognize that it’s also significantly due to the skill and natural charisma of Jon Hamm.
So if your character is going to tread that line of dubious sympathy, you have some other work to do. Fortunately, you can go where the TV can’t go: you can go into the characters’ heads.
If you want to show that a character is in control of a situation, you can get into their heads and prove it. You can dive into the complexities that a TV show can only hint at. You can make them more real, make them stronger and more relatable (or less relatable, if that’s the intent).
Now, I understand that it’s not everyone novel’s style to actually lay out what every character is thinking. Some people like to keep that internal dialog relatively silent. If that’s what you’re going for, just be aware up front of the limitations and be careful about making your characters interesting and relatively likable. Make sure their actions are relatable enough during their first impression. Go for more universal reactions to situations that the audience can identify with, at least initially, so you risk losing reader interest.
The point is not to say that I have something against moving pictures. Quite the contrary – I enjoy them. However, there are other ways films and TV dramas have infected my writing aside from those important differences in dialog and characters on the screen as opposed to the page. It’s easy to subconsciously lump screen-writing and novel writing together because of the similarities, but the differences can cause you grief if you aren’t careful. I’ll leave the rest of that discussion for another post.