When we think of a protagonist, there’s a wide spectrum of examples. The crazy book fan in Stephen King novel Misery, Darth Vader from Star Wars, Joker from Batman, Hans Gruber from Die hard and Agent Smith from the Matrix. In real life, there are plenty of terrible examples. The Axis leaders in WWII, Ivan the Terrible, Saddam Hussain, the North Korean Kim dynasty, Jeffery Dahmer and David Koresh.
As a writer, it’s sometimes necessary to have a protagonist. These characters span the range from slightly annoying to beyond contempt. They are defined by selfish motives, anger, aggression, laziness, a love of inflicting pain and/or a lack of empathy. Often they intentionally don’t think about the consequences of their actions.
To me, that’s not the entire story. A good protagonist must have a clear motive behind their bad intentions. The new character Sam walked over and hit Fred. Why did Sam do this? Should the reader hate Sam? Is Sam actually a hero? Yes, I know that in real life, people are sometimes jerks without any logical reason. However, authors have to think in terms of the reader and readers have a difficult time relating to a blank character. We have to know Sam’s deal; Sam cannot just be evil. Fred’s response to Sam’s actions has to make sense.
In real life, people have minds and very few of us truly embrace evil. We think we’re normal and when we do something bad, we consider our actions to be acceptable behavior. Sometimes we act badly intentionally because it’s exciting or to assure ourselves that we’re in control. During this time, we usually know what we’re doing is wrong, but we overall think of ourselves as being good.
Here’s a lite example. A person on rare occasions drives over the speed limit. They know their driving is dangerous and yet, they still do it. To them, their decision to put others in danger doesn’t feel like a big deal until somebody gets hurt. After the accident, the driver can admit fault or pretend to be innocent. As an outsider judging this driver would consider them to be basically a good person.
Now, let’s take a driver that regularly drives aggressively and is constantly putting others in danger. Over the years of driving, there would be incidents where this bad driver was told by others that they weren’t a good person for driving in this manner. As they continue to drive aggressively, their mind develops a mental defense mechanism. For example, a justification argument, “The rest of my life is great and this is my one escape.” Complete denial, “Everybody drives bad, I’m no exception.” A deflection, “I’m a great driver, its’ everybody else that can’t drive.” An offensive argument, “I’m protecting myself from other drivers.” Or a deferral, “I hate wasting time in traffic.” In all of these arguments, there’s no admittance of responsibility, “I know that I’m a bad driver and someday, somebody is going to get hurt. When this happens it will be my fault.”
Now, let’s take a bad example. A person who physically abuses others to the point where there can be no denial. Their arguments are the same as the bad driver, but the logic is deeply flawed, “The rest of my life is great and this is my one escape.” It would be clear to an outside observer that the person making that statement has mental issues or they are truly evil.
The point is that bad people cannot confront the fact that they themselves are truly bad. This is because evolution has provided humans with a mental defense that allows us to tolerate our choices. Otherwise, people would have guilt trips all day long.
There are many examples of this denial in real life. An interview with a serial killer will be full of logic behind their bad actions. Interviews with the great oppressive leaders are loaded with lofty illogical reasons for their cruelty.
A good protagonist builds upon the foundation of a bad person who has the mindset that they’re just fine. Their abhorrent actions make perfect sense to themselves. From there, the writer applies motivation. A good protagonist has the same motivations as us, but they apply their motivation differently. For example, a good person tries to get ahead with hard work while a bad person gets ahead with shortcuts. A good person uses their mind to solve problems while a bad person steals the teachers answer key. A good person feels good by helping others while a bad person feels superior by hurting others. It should be noted that the protagonist typically doesn’t have low intelligence. It is more likely that a protagonist will have an apparent low intelligence and use their mind in creative ways to compensate which reveals high intelligence. This lazy overcompensation is a core trait.
A protagonist must be relatable to the reader. The reader might have a relative or a coworker that acts just like the protagonist in the story. Well, what about a super-protagonist like Darth Vader or Saddam Hussain? In my humble writings, I try to stay from super/extreme characters because I feel readers are less likely to relate to them in real life.
My closest attempt at an extreme character is in my first book, Interviewing Immortality. My protagonist appears as a dominatrix serial killer. Later, it’s revealed that she is actually not super evil [at least in her mind.] The majority of the book is spent discussing this point. However, she is by definition an extreme character. Her level of violence is far above normal and her attitude contains a thin sliver of compassion. By the end of the book, the reader isn’t fully convinced that she’s a good person. However, the reader clearly understands the motives behind her wickedness.
Does this mean that the reader needs to like the protagonist? Generally, they shouldn’t. The protagonist serves as a foil to the other characters. They give the plot motive and their actions build the other characters.
Can there be a story that focuses on the protagonist? Sure, they can be the main character or whatever the plot requires. The protagonist in my first book was the main character and she was built on a careful foundation. There were very specific reasons for her actions, however, when confronted, she was reluctant to accept responsibility. She would never say, “I did it because I’m mean.” She would say, “The people who I hurt deserved to be hurt.” Why is this motivation angle so important? Why can’t she simply be bad? Simple, readers don’t relate to the logic of a normal bad person. In real life, a criminal commits a robbery. Our only desire is to lock them up. We don’t care about their life’s story and we have no empathy. The only part of the story we enjoy is the chase to locate the criminal.
Well, what about crime dramas? In general, stories of that type focus on the police and not on the criminal. What about Hannibal Lecter? Readers got a front row seat into his insanity. He is clearly a twisted person trying to taunt the police and he is the entire story. To me, that story is an exception. Perhaps I am blinded by the fact that I don’t like those kinds of stories. To me, a great story involves converting the reader to relate to the protagonist. Readers like to be lead down an exciting path. They generally dislike confusion, illogical plots, incomplete characters, bad people [characters we hate so much that we put down the book] and missing information.
Well, what about crazy people or people who are normally mean? My advice is to use characters of this type sparingly. For example, in my fifth book Kim and Gabe Thrive (which is now in the writing phase) my main character is pumping gas when a random protagonist insulted her. She delivers an insult back and drives away without any further interaction.
The protagonist served to show that the main character is strong; specifically as a good example to her daughter as a mother who doesn’t accept insults. If there was a need for further interaction of that protagonist, their background would have been revealed. Otherwise, readers would be confused by the main character. Is she the type of woman who attracts random bad people? Is she living in an area that is full of bad people? It’s best not to leave the reader guessing. Because, in reality, readers go to the gas station all the time without confrontation.
Well, what about a confused protagonist? They are walking along, minding their own business and they do something bad without any apparent motivation. In real life, there are a few people who have this trait. It’s my opinion that readers would have a hard time relating to this kind of character. Well, what about a supernatural story where characters are mean all the time? Say a dystopian reality. For this type of story, the author would have to lay out a different foundation. In crazy world, everybody’s a jerk and now the story makes sense.
What about a super villain like the type that James Bond would encounter? They want to cause an earthquake and are holding the world for ransom. If a reader analyzes a story of this type, there is always a foundation and logic behind the protagonist’s actions. In general, this type of protagonist had a bad childhood and spent their life over compensating. The logic behind their specific motives revolves around a disliked group of people and they use their power to inflict pain on this same group. In this extreme case, the reader doesn’t necessarily relate to the protagonist, but they do respect their logic even if it is vastly flawed.
What about a real life super villain Saddam Hussain or Jeffery Dahmer. Reality is a bit muddy in this area. Are they crazy, power hungry or over compensating? Hard to say, but what is clear is that real life people like that are very different from a James Bond’s protagonist. This difference is in the level of control they have over their lives and the impact of their actions. When James Bond’s protagonist causes an earthquake, the world sends James Bond after him. If Saddam Hussain caused an earthquake, the media would have over the top coverage until the armies of the world put a stop to him.
There are of course protagonist that doesn’t fit the traditional mold. The anti-hero. For example, the character Mad Max is kind of bad and kind of good. Or the super nice person who makes us feel terrible. A dentist who inflicts a lot of pain to make a tooth feel better. Characters like this are kind of in their own class and their motivations are complex and perhaps outside this discussion.
So where does this all lead us? A good protagonist needs to have a clear foundation, a clear motive and should be relatable. The writer needs to have a goal for the protagonist; essentially define what they are going to do for the story. By the end of the story, the reader should have fully understood their motives.
How does that relate to real life? Characters in books are mirrors of our reality. They should stretch the bonds and allow us to reflect. What about me? Am I a protagonist? I know I’ve made mistakes and I like to be in control. If I were to be honest with myself, on the scale of real people, I’m a B+. I have room to grow and I try hard to live a good life that’s not at the expense of others. I also try very hard to treat people with respect and help out where I can. Wait a minute. I do write books that contain stories about bad people. They torture, kill and aren’t productive members of society. Am I in denial of my true self and really a bad person? Denial is the greatest trait of a protagonist. Hmm. Something to think about.
You’re the best -Bill
September 13, 2018
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