In the previous chapter we worked on increasing our understanding of the protagonist; their personalities are familiar, they have a backstory and we know how they look, what work they do, their hobbies, their loves, hates and quirks. In this chapter we'll be delving a little deeper into different aspects of what constitutes a character.
Hero or Anti-hero?
The classical hero/heroine is portrayed as possessing the better human qualities such as courage, moral strength and idealism. An anti-hero displays a more unconventional set of characteristics: less charming, more idiosyncratic, less bound by the rules—has the appeal of the bad boy, the rebel without a cause.
If you compare Holden Caulfield with Jack Reacher, you find the first is young, inexperienced, gets himself into situations he can’t handle; the other, cynical and older, resolves difficult situations then moves on. Superficially they have little in common, but what they do share is they both perceive themselves to be alone and separate from what they consider to be mainstream society. We regard both as anti-heroes.
An anti-hero has a flawed nature. They may, like Holden, have unresolved issues, have a criminal past as does Jay Gatsby, or take the law into their own hands. The glamour of a Robin Hood, with his means justifies the ends philosophy, even though performing criminal acts, shows their enduring attraction because they also pluck at our heartstrings and win our sympathy. One of my favorite anti-heroes is Alec Leamus, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, where the main character is a whisky-drinking, introverted and disillusioned spy. The lengths he goes to when serving his country, while simultaneously trying to protect the woman he loves, present a strong contrast to the high level of deception his profession demands from him.
Traditional heroes are bigger than life, yet we are also drawn to the maverick, the loner. The advantage of an imperfect protagonist is that it’s easier to feel empathy for them because we are also flawed and we experience the full gamut of emotions, including negative ones. In addition, as writers, we can take those weaknesses and use them as a tool for shaping a story.
So is your protagonist a hero or an anti-hero? How appealing are they? Do they have to be charming and likeable? Some of the most fascinating fictional creations are complicated, imperfect personalities.
Internal and External Conflicts
Insider or outsider, we need readers to identify with the main character’s plight, and we do this through their emotional journey. In order to fully engage readers, you need to create an external and an internal struggle—one or the other isn’t enough. A space warrior battling aliens, knowing he might never embrace his wife and child again, faces a dilemma. Does he run to his family and focus on saving them and himself, or does he sacrifice himself for the greater good and never see his loved ones again? A woman on vacation with her best friend has a difficult decision when the friend’s husband tries to kiss her. Does she reveal what happened and ruin the relationship (he’d deny it; her bestie may assume she’s after her man or envious and causing trouble) or ignore the incident and invent an excuse to end her trip as soon as possible. Exploring your character’s inner turmoil as they face an external quandary and decide which impulse, fight or flight, is stronger, draws the reader in.
I wrote a short story, Eddie’s War, for an assignment on a creative writing course, but the tutor’s feedback explained how I missed a chance to increase Eddie’s dilemma as I’d only given him an external obstacle to overcome. Based on a real-life story from WW1, a soldier dashed across No-man’s-land and rescued a wounded solder after he spotted the man was still alive. I thought a battle provided plenty of confrontation, but after thinking about the tutor’s advice, I gave the revised version more impact by making the fallen serviceman someone who had gotten Eddie a very unpleasant punishment for a misdemeanor. This meant he had to save a person he had a grudge against, giving his actions more depth. Placing my character in the middle of the battlefield where he was dodging bullets and performing a heroic act wasn’t sufficient; he had to undergo an internal conflict.
You can read the story on my blog here: https://bit.ly/2FunBow (Yes, I’m plugging myself here, and if you go the self-publishing route and become an authorpreneur, even if you’re an introverted hermit, you’ll find yourself doing the same.)
Think about the characters that made an impact on you. Were they heroes or anti-heroes? Maybe add a little unpleasantness or self-doubt to your protagonist and think about how that could affect the events they'll experience.
Choose a book (or two or more) from the following list to read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_antiheroes
Study the protagonist with an eye to analyzing their personality. List their flaws, observe how the author used those vulnerabilities to drive the plot and to make them more human. NB Liking the character is not a requirement, but developing a critical eye is well worth the effort. Learning from great writers can only help your own writing.
Give some thought as to how you might turn your character into an anti-hero. What traits would you enhance or remove? How would this affect their actions?
If your protagonist is already an anti-hero, place them in a scene or two where they would be forced to behave in a more traditional heroic way.
Work hard, play hard and whatever you do, keep writing.
Have a great month and see you all on the 1st - well, seeing as it'll be April, maybe on the second?