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.