Is he the quintessential hero beyond measure? Is she an octogenarian who is also a clever sleuth? Is he a martyr for his country? Is she a misunderstood genius with a heart of gold? The romantic qualities that draw us to the traditional main character in a story are typically those that can be unattainable to the average person. Still, many readers find a pleasant refuge in the words and deeds of those almost-too-perfect protagonists. More than ever, many project themselves into these larger than life characters and dream through them, never believing they could actually live for one second in their shoes.
But what if your favorite main character is not the standard good guy? What if he or she is an antihero? The person who has seen too much or done terrible things and has suffered? What if their language would make a stevedore blush and their demeanor borders on the crude and abrasive? The term that’s used for such a character these days is “damaged.” Damaged sounds like they were broken during shipment to the story. But damaged is really an all-inclusive term to reflect a protagonist who is often more real than any of the too-good-to-be-true heroes of fiction. “Damaged” is actually closer to the average person on the street. There are degrees of “damaged,” from slightly bent to horrifically shattered. But it seems more and more that readers are being attracted to these imperfect specimens that talk like you, think like your lonely neighbor, look like your best friend and act like that guy who sits four cubicles up from you at the office. Instead of slaying dragons or riding away on a white horse with the prince, these characters are addicts, thieves, gamblers, con artists, losers, liars and cheaters. Not exactly who you strive to be.
But maybe, just maybe, these lonely, tarnished souls can impart the same heroism that every knight on a white horse oozed as he galloped into the perfect sienna sunset.
For writers, the damaged protagonist is a real hit today. But it’s also a challenge to make that messed up person likeable. And believe me, if your main character has no redeemable qualities and is just as annoying as a mosquito in your ear, you will lose readers faster than the speed of light.
Why do I know about making damaged characters likable? Because I happened to write such a character in the form of Detective Jane Perry. Jane Perry has an edge sharper than steel and a bravado that dares anyone to take her on. Dark, endless pits of violence fill her life as she secretly fantasizes about acting out her aggressive predilection. She’s foul mouthed, a hopeless alcoholic and consumes cigarettes with a voracious hunger. Her only friend is a take-out menu and her only solace is knowing that at the end of the day, she can get loaded and pass out as she loses herself in the void.
Sound like someone to baby-sit a kid? No? Well, that’s exactly what Jane Perry ends up doing in Protector. What makes it work? Let’s call it learning the C.U.R.V.E.
In my opinion, if you have a main character who is the archetypal antihero, you better make sure he or she falls into the C.U.R.V.E. or your readers aren’t going to get past page 10.
When I delivered the first draft of Protector to my editor, his comment was that Jane Perry was too over the top in her reactions and actions. “Tone down the anger,” he wrote me. She was coming through the page like a wild boar on the attack. “Show her vulnerability,” he also encouraged me.
Vulnerability? The mere thought of allowing Jane to be vulnerable was like cutting the legs off a racehorse. But he was right. Without toning her down and showing her weaknesses, she was just a loose cannon who needed to be sedated. I softened Jane but I still acknowledged her natural edge because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be true to the character.
I took another hard look at the story and realized that by making Jane more VULNERABLE, I could also allow the reader to have greater COMPASSION for her. Through that compassion, they would hopefully UNDERSTAND how and why she reacts the way she does. Maybe, they’d even learn a little about themselves or a family member who acted like Jane. Perhaps, by understanding, they’d feel EMPATHY for Jane, because no one is perfect. And when Jane finally found the courage she needed to solve the case, her REDEMPTION would be apparent and this all-too-human fictional character would have come full circle.
Do all these elements of the C.U.R.V.E. have to be in every story that has an antihero as the main character to make it work? It wouldn’t hurt. In ANY story, the cardinal rule of character development is creating a protagonist that the reader roots for. When you have a damaged character such as Jane Perry, it’s imperative to allow the reader to see through the glut of pain and deep anger she feels—to dive into her troubled subconscious and emerge with a compelling reason to root for her even more and to rally to her defense even when she’s abrasive and crude. And, let me tell you, that wasn’t easy as a writer. But after four drafts and many revisions, I think I accomplished my goal.
When you choose a protagonist who is driven by demons, you are going to turn off a few readers who are used to the traditional hero or heroine. While I think that the damaged protagonist is much more appealing than the know-it-all who saves the day, there are still a lot of readers out there who don’t agree with me. Thus, a writer such as myself has to work twice as hard to give their antihero an audience who appreciates them. However, I personally think the payoff is greater with the antihero because it literally forces the reader to embrace a character who they normally wouldn’t associate with in the literary world.
It may also allow them to entertain the notion that just because someone in their OWN world doesn’t conform to their perfect ideal, it doesn’t mean that individual isn’t worth knowing.
And that, my friend, is an even greater payoff.
Laurel Dewey is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we’re offering sensational deals on all of Laurel’s books, including national bestseller Protector. You can learn more about it here.