Photo of Robin the superhero sidekick

We Don’t Need Another Hero (like this)

As a writing coach, I’ve seen a lot of first drafts. Maybe too many. All I can say is that I’ve got scars…

Anyway, while reading those drafts, I’ve noticed something interesting. New writing is often populated by a couple of archetypal protagonists that are deeply problematic. It’s kinda eerie.

Of course, these (largely) unconscious mistakes are part of learning the craft. It’s a pain when your Neolithic wetware delivers shit sandwiches of inspiration rather than kick-ass, gourmet prose. But what are you gonna do?

For one thing, it’s probably a good idea to get to know these unconscious denizens. Read their sign. Like the man said, if it bleeds, you can kill it.

In today’s post, I take a look at three types of heroes that you can do without. Think of them as the kind of hitchhikers that want to hop on board not because they’re free-spirited hippies on their way to Weedapalooza, but rather complete and utter bastards who have their partners waiting over the rise with AK-47s and a side-order of bad attitude.

Problem Protagonist #1: The Asshole

Because of reasons, many first drafts are over-populated by truly unlikable protagonists. It’s as if the writer started with the best intentions but then veered into territory that made their lead character just a shade more palatable than Ted Bundy. Or that Carrot Top guy.

You should ruthlessly cull your douchebag protagonists. Here are some common variants and subspecies to look out for:

  • Your hero whines a lot about not being understood and not having enough freedom / love / money / store credit. A central part of her personality is how totally on trend she is right now in comparison to her friends.
  • Sanctimony comes real easy to your protagonist. He likes lecturing other characters about the evils of eating meat, the dangers of consumerism, the loose morals of stage magicians and other subversives, the importance of flossing, etc. Often, this type of hero is a hand puppet for the writer’s own political agenda. Please remember that nobody cares about your politics. They care only about your story.
  • Your hero is like totally disappointed in the stupidity of everyone around her. What do you mean you can’t do Fourier transformations? I mean, duh. While a hero that is super-clever might work for a number of stories, a hero who constantly reminds everyone of her genius definitely won’t.
  • Your protagonist is kind to animals, children, old people and the less fortunate. He doesn’t swear, lie, cheat, drink or steal and is saving money to pay for Gramma’s hip replacement. Oh, and he’s also a Peace Corps volunteer who builds schools in the Congo when not reading to the blind. In his spare time.
    There’s something like too perfect. Perfect protagonists lead to stories that are devoid of tension, suspense, and other essential elements of a good yarn. Kill them.
  • Conversely, your protagonist is more Komodo Dragon than human. She kills without compunction, abuses her romantic partners (along with their pets), and makes North Korea look pretty liberal. She’s got no time for weaklings and kidnaps homeless people to use as subjects in what she refers to as “scientific investigations.” No. This is not cutting edge. This is torture porn.

Maybe you’re writing in a genre where characters operate outside the bounds of normal society. Crime fiction, for instance. Or maybe your protag is a serial killer who kills other serial killers. Cool! Wait a minute, that sounds familiar…

Anyway, does this advice still apply? Yes, it does. Even if every single one of your characters is a complete bastard, your hero should be the bastard hanging on to her last scrap of humanity. She should be creatively less of a bastard than everyone else.

Note that your protagonist doesn’t have to be “nice” to be compelling. Make her flawed, weird, even more than a little crazy. But some main characters are just so unlikeable, so repugnant, that nothing can rehabilitate them. Avoid.

Problem Protagonist #2: The Sad-sack

Let me tell you a story. Robyn is a young woman who’s just arrived in the Big City from Backwater Hellhole. She’s looking for that Big Break. Instead, she ends up living in a dangerously-against-code apartment building with a loser roommate who sees her as a breathing ATM to help support his heroin habit. Also, the only job she’s managed to find is a minimum wage gig waiting tables at Creepy Tony’s Greasy Pizzas. After a month or two of dealing with her junkie roomie, rude customers, insanely long shifts at the pizza joint, and Creepy Tony’s creepy and ever-escalating sexual advances, Robyn decides to quit her job and move back to Backwater Hellhole. She realizes that the big city dreams she entertained will always remain thus. Perhaps marrying Biff, the local misogynist drunk, is her true destiny. The End.

How was that? Would you want to read 90,000 words about Robyn? No?

The problem is that our hero is way too passive. She’s accepting what life hands her with almost no complaint. There’s no fire. No fight. She just rolls over and plays dead. Even if she eventually marries Biff, which would be a tragedy, we need to see her fight, Wolverine-style, to avoid that fate. And probably murder the drunk schmuck in his sleep. With a chainsaw.

Good heroes make us give a damn. And giving a damn only comes from seeing something in the hero that we would like to see in ourselves. If your hero can’t be bothered to try and change her situation, why would anyone want to read about her? Let your sad-sack heroes die of unnatural causes, preferably before Page 1.

Problem Protagonist #3: The Sidekick

Good heroes are skilled characters. I believe it was Plato who said, “They’ve got game.” A good hero should be particularly good at something. This something needn’t be dramatic or super cool (although that helps). Look at Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22. In it, the hero, Yossarian, is a bit of a screw-up. He’s not particularly courageous or noble. But he is very good indeed at getting himself out of tough assignments and saving his own skin. He’s a professional loafer who’s good at spotting the insanity around him and we love him for it.

Sure, heroes are often ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. But they don’t remain ordinary. They discover something about themselves that is special, different from the norm. If your protagonist is always watching from the sidelines, if she’s continually stepping aside for other characters to perform amazing feats, she’s not a true hero. She’s a side-kick.

Even in stories where the characters are ultimately doomed because they are so powerless, such as (spoiler alert) Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaiden’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonists are still particularly good at rebelling (albeit fruitlessly) against mainstream society.

Maybe you’ve misidentified the protag in your story and should re-write from a different character’s perspective. The one who can actually do stuff. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with any one character being emphasized at the expense of the rest of the ensemble.

Whatever the reason, you’ve got to fix it. Stories need protagonists who can do things well, especially things that we’d like to do as readers but can’t (or won’t) because we’re big old scaredy-cat wusses.

One last thing. Like most pieces of writing advice, you’re most welcome to ignore it all. Because every now and again, someone writes a breakaway best-seller featuring an asshole protagonist. But those people are freaky-rare genius types. If you’re such a writer, good for you. Also: why are you reading this, you weirdo?

See you next time. And watch out for dodgy hitchhikers.

Megaphone Picture

Some Bad Writing Advice (Volume II)

Last time I covered some dangerous, misleading writing advice that’s floating around out there, ready to stick a .45 in the face of the would-be writer and demand the keys to the Corvette. In this post, I look at a few more of these bad boys.

Bad Advice #3: Find your voice

I really hate this one. If you’re a beginning writer, it won’t be long before you come across this quiet little killer. I’ve seen way too many writers put themselves under enormous (and unnecessary) pressure because they haven’t found their “voice.” Wrote a piece-of-crap story? It’s probably because you haven’t found your authorial voice, a not-so-helpful writing friend will tell you. This voice thing can become a cure-all, a magical panacea which only really, really special writers can access.

I call bullshit.

What is “voice” anyway? It’s difficult to find an adequate definition of the term that doesn’t sound like the recipe for a +3 potion of total bloody confusion. Sure, in the halls of MFA-qualified writing instructors there’s probably some kind of consensus about “voice.” But for the average roll-up-your-sleeves writer? I think not. Instead, it can stultify your creativity for years.

Presumably, if you work hard enough and know the writing Contra code, your voice will emerge (you’ll also get 30 free writerly lives—nice!). I say: stop sweating blood because you haven’t found your “voice.” Rather, realize that it’s probably your old friend, Mr. Resistance, up to his vile tricks again. You will write as only you can (and will). If that’s your voice, so be it. But don’t let this flimflam set you back. Not even for a second.

Bad Advice #4: Content advice

Here’s what I mean by content advice. You write a piece and submit it to your writing circle / best friend / imaginary dragon living in your garage for feedback.

What you get back is something along the lines of, “I dig it. It like totally flowed and stuff, but that part where your protagonist faces her inner demons and burns down the whole asylum left me wanting more. Why not have her psychiatrist secretly be in love with her, and she takes her away to her mountain retreat-style cabin to have a sordid affair? That would be so cool! And I think the asylum’s head orderly must be in on the whole thing. Maybe have him be an undercover agent for the Dark Cabal that your protagonist is trying to undermine. That would rock!” You get the idea.

Content advice is almost always complete and utter bunk. Why? Because you are the captain of your story ship. Seriously. Don’t give up that wheelhouse for anybody. Only you can tell the story you’ve got to tell. It’s natural for people reading your first draft to come up with their own ideas of where the story should go. That’s a good sign. It means your writing inspires creativity in others. But that’s where the advice should stay. Inside others. Inside their own minds. Don’t let it infect yours.

Here’s story feedback that is important to listen to:

  • Grammatical and spelling errors (e.g. Principle and Principal have different meanings, dude)
  • Errors of fact (e.g. No. The Allies didn’t have space lasers in WWII.)
  • Tone / mood that doesn’t work (e.g. I’m not sure you really nailed the sense of tragedy by using the phrase, “It was a total bummer when Wayne lost his entire family in the fire.”)
  • Story structure errors (e.g. I think that mentioning the fact that the story is set in 13th Century France is important to introduce from Chapter 1 onwards)
  • Stuff in the story that didn’t make any sense (e.g. It confused me when your protagonist suddenly developed the ability to swing from an invisible prehensile tail halfway through your historical romance novel)

Like any counsel, there are exceptions. If you’re lucky enough to have procured the services of a professional editor or writing coach, you should probably give their content advice more credence. They’ve read, professionally, a whole heck of lot of stories in your genre. They have a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

But if it’s content advice from any other source, treat it like you would a nice little disk of Uranium-235 that shows up in the mail. With extreme caution.

Bad Advice #5: Taking on too much advice

As a kid, I thought I wanted to be a professional golfer. Weird, but there you go. So my dad paid for lessons with a great old golf pro called Don Elmore. Don was the closest I’ve ever come to a true Obi Wan Kenobi-style mentor.

At the end of our first lesson, Don casually asked me if I’d been reading any instructional books on golf. I’m a nerd, so of course I said yes. A whole bunch. Don smiled and told me in his languid, syrupy American accent, “Burn them all, kid. Burn them all.”

That came as a bit of a shock. I’d been reading every single book my local library had on golf. I’m talking not only the how-to stuff but books on the frigging history of the game itself. Like I said, primo nerd. Only later in life did I really appreciate (or understand) Don’s advice.

He wasn’t being facetious or arrogant. He wanted total control over my path into the game. He honestly didn’t want to compete with mentors he would never get to meet. His motives were benevolent. Don knew that too many voices clamoring for attention can confuse the heck out of an uninformed mind. I get it now. Don was no dummy.

Back to writing. You’re reading this, so you’re probably a tremendous, grade-A, story nerd. You poor bastard. You’re collecting how-to books like muscle car-drivers collect speeding fines. You’re strung out on the latest “5 steps to authorial kick-assdom” books like an insomniac binge-watching late-night infomercials.

I know your pain. Intimately. I’ve got a rather large (i.e. massive, planetary-sized) bookcase in my study dedicated to my shameful collection of writing self-help. Oh, and that’s not counting about a third of my Kindle’s memory devoted to the same.

I’m Harper and I have a problem. So do you. Time to fire up that barbeque, don’t you think?

Of course, I realize and acknowledge the contradiction of me telling you, dear reader of this advice column, not to take on board too much advice. I might even be tearing a contradiction hole in the space-time continuum right now. Sorry about that.

But it has to be said. Writing advice is not light beer. It should not be gulped down in gallon-sized quantities. Writing advice is more like a bottle of 60-year old cognac. Sip it slow. Real slow. Look for quality, not quantity.

Thanks Don.

See you next time. Now go write.

Megaphone Picture

Some Bad Writing Advice (Volume 1)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as someone starts to write, their friends, acquaintances, and the entire internet will soak them in a deluge of really bad advice. New writers are especially vulnerable, they’re hungry for anything that could help them improve their craft even if that thing will harm rather then help.

Bad writing advice is more than just uninformed opinion. It drains away a new writer’s morale, stifles creativity and probably leads to a world-ending zombie apocalypse. Okay, maybe not that last one. But close.

In this two-volume post, I’d like to take on some pieces of bad advice I’ve come across. Ideas that seem pretty reasonable at first glance but are likely to perform a prefrontal lobotomy on your sorry writer’s ass.

Bad Advice #1: Write every day.

Oh man. I wonder how many people have vowed never to write again because of this old chestnut. It’s the kind of blanket prescription that’s on par with saying that you can only pass that exam / finish your thesis / complete the project by working on it every single day. Every. Single. Day.

And yet, millions of people, every single day, pass exams, finish dissertations, and probably build bridges by leaving everything to the last damn minute. Sure, they shave off several years of their life expectancy in sheer panic and caffeine-fueled all-nighters, but things get done.

So why is writing any different? It’s not.

Some people can write every day. I salute them. But to be fair, only some of those folks will go on to publish anything worth reading. And in the ranks of the already published, I promise you there are people who do not, in fact, write every day.

So what’s going on here?

People who get published are good at finishing the fucking story. They are skilled at creating unconscious patterns of creativity inside their own minds through consistency. They don’t necessarily write every day, but they do write consistently.

So a better version of “write every day,” is: “Create consistent patterns of writing inside your chaotic, ever-crumbling life’s schedule and try stick to these, dummy.” Only have four hours per week spread across five days to write? Then make those four consistent hours, five consistent days.

Bad Advice #2: Do a detailed character biography.

I’ve come across this advice in several writing groups and even some pretty decent writing courses.

You know this one. The notion that you can only build a fully realized character if you write down every tiny little detail about them. Do a full psychological bio. Write down what they like listening to when they’re stuck in traffic. The name of their second grade teacher. The internal layout of the house they grew up in. That sort of thing.

If you think this is a good piece of advice, let me ask you a few important questions. Are you, by any chance, a professional psychological profiler? Do you make a living out of predicting other people’s behavior? No? Because even the pros (and I used to be one) are a bit lost when it comes to constructing a proper psychological profile on a person.

Also, do you think potential readers of your fiction care about what your main protagonist had for breakfast? Or which tune they were humming in the shower that morning? I didn’t think so.

Writing reams of character backstory and constructing elaborate personality profiles of every walk-on in your novel is also known by another name. Writers like Steven Pressfield call it “Resistance.” It’s that old foe that lies in wait, whispering sweet nothings while you whittle away your time on all sorts of junk. Like deciding on just the right writing playlist. You know, important stuff like that.

Doing detailed character bios avoids the rather more important task of telling the story your characters are a part of.

Here’s the rub. Characters are only meaningful inside of stories.

Action defines character. Your potential readers are interested in how your characters operate in the world, how they influence their surroundings. Ever wonder why you encounter so few scenes detailing the protagonist’s toilet habits in published fiction? It’s because readers don’t care. It’s because there are more interesting things to say about your characters than the boring minutiae of their everyday lives.

Elmore Leonard famously said that his writing is so effective because he “leaves out the boring parts.” Doing full character biographies is a celebration of the boring parts.

But hang on, you say. Maybe a full grocery list of my protagonist’s personality traits is still useful, providing it stays in the background. Providing it never reaches the page that the reader is holding. That’s okay, surely?

To that I say, perhaps you’re underestimating the temptation of injecting those boring bits into the story. You spent time on them, after all. The readers will understand, surely?

No, they won’t.

So what’s the alternative?

Compelling characters live inside the writer’s mind. They’re like little persistent brain-worms. Sexy, compelling, disturbing little brain-worms. You can bet they won’t go away easy.

So instead of writing down boring details about your characters, write them into scenes. Have your heroes and villains act rather than navel-gaze. Have them speak to other characters and show their desires—don’t write down a bore-me-to-death list of their motivations. Put them in the story and let them run around, breaking stuff. That’s the way to understand character. Not through some bogus personality profile, but through action.

Let your characters live.

See you next time. Happy writing.

Image: Megaphone photo by Leo Reynolds (CC BY-NC 2.0).


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