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The Perfect Protagonist Is Flawed

Writers can fall into the trap of making their protagonist perfect. No one is perfect. We all have undesirable quirks; some are reasonably easy to hide and others are more obvious. While villains have good qualities, heroes need bad qualities. This makes your character more believable, more recognisable and more – dare I say it – likeable. A story with a flawless protagonist is flawed.

Besides giving your protagonist less desirable qualities, consider what else you can add to make your hero more interesting. Is it a mysterious or torturous past? Does your character have well-guarded secrets, which are hinted at but slow to reveal? What drives your character? What turmoil does your character deal with?

Let’s look at the classic superheroes who originally started out as always being true, good and courageous. They hardly ever made a bad decision, and their sole problem was trying to keep their identity hidden. Now, they are far more developed, make mistakes, and vulnerable. Superheros are more likeable, even funny, if they struggle with their inner demons.

The Avengers – each a superhero with a desire to help and protect – still have individual issues. Bruce Banner battles with his violent alter ego, The Hulk. Thor struggles with his arrogance and his weakness for his adopted brother. Black Widow’s tortuous past as a child turned her into a brilliant assassin and her heart into stone. She did unmentionable things and is trying to make amends but she has to fight her dark past on a daily basis. As for Tony Stark – a genius inventor struggles with … well, everything. He struggles with being neglected by his work-obsessed father, with usually being the smartest person in the room (unless Bruce Banner is present), and with feeling inadequate to his alter ego invention, Iron Man. You may think Captain America is perfect; he comes close, but he still has issues. Due to a 70-year sleep in the Arctic, he loses all his friends including his girlfriend and wakes up to a different world to what he knew with different values. That would weigh heavily on anyone. While he has good common sense, he’s naive. He’s lonely and in need of an inner purpose beside the obvious ‘save the world’ purpose.

All these characters have come to life because of their personal problems and that makes them human, which means the audience can understand and connect with them.

We’ve established that protagonists need good and bad qualities to make them three-dimensional characters, and that they need to deal with their own conflicts. There are many different types of protagonists and some can fit into more than one category. They are not all willing to face danger like superheroes; there are reluctant heroes too. Bruce Banner is a reluctant hero because it means giving up control and unleashing the Hulk. There’s also the protagonist who stumbles onto a situation that requires extraordinary bravery and effort to save one or more people when the protagonist just wants to pretend nothing is happening so he/she can go home to bed. Han Solo from Star Wars was simply trying to pay off a debt and didn’t want to get involved. Ellen Ripley certainly didn’t want to tangle with the slimy aliens looking for hosts.

Even everyday protagonists are still fighting for a desired outcome. It may not be to save the world or restore freedom; it may be something more personal like fighting an illness or dealing with betrayal. Whatever it is, don’t forget to give your protagonists a few warts and inner conflicts along with being basically good individuals.

 

Image by Alexander Gounder from Pixabay

Stuck for Character Traits for Your Villain?

Villains need to have human characteristics to ensure they are three-dimensional; otherwise they may as well be faceless and mindless. It was discussed in The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil that antagonists need human qualities – good and bad – but that may not be easy. If you are struggling to find character traits for the villain in your story, try this simple exercise.

Think of at least five villains that you liked (or loved to hate) and list two or more qualities (good or bad) from each. Don’t be surprised if you find the same qualities appearing on several villains in your list. These are characteristics that you’re drawn to for your evil characters – use them when creating your villain.

I tend to use movies as examples, because the chances of you seeing the same movie (or at least knowing the character) is better than reading the same book, but use whatever medium you want.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – Sheriff of Nottingham

  • Funny
  • A strong presence
  • Impatience

Trust Alan Rickman to turn a dull villain into a sensational character.

Harry Potter’s Professor Severus Snape

  • Tormented
  • Greasy look
  • Menacing
  • Intelligent

While Voldemort was the real villain in the story, Professor Snape certainly caused plenty of problems for the main character even though his actions may have been with good intentions.

The Fugitive’s Lt Phillip Gerard (from the 1960s tv show)

  • Career and duty focused
  • Determined
  • Intelligent

While on the side of the law, this man is infuriatingly clever and able to guess Kimble’s movements. Despite believing in Kimble’s innocence, Gerard is determined to capture Kimble. This sort of conflict would have torn most people, but Gerard was steadfast in his duties.

Star Wars’ Dark Vader

  • Sinister
  • Powerful
  • Prepared to follow through with his threats
  • Ruthless
  • Hides inner conflicts

Thor’s adopted brother Loki

  • Cunning
  • Funny
  • Planner
  • Manipulator
  • Life of being overshadowed by muscle-bound Thor

Now you have a list of traits to choose from.

 

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil

While the enemy can be multiple individuals forming a uniting force, such as invading aliens wanting to take over Earth, we will focus on an individual foe for the purposes of this article.

Every story needs a villain and that villain needs a purpose. No matter how dark and sinister antagonists may be, they are people too and must have wants and needs. The antagonist must believe his/her purpose is reasonable and justified, if not righteous. Gone are days when the villain was merely a shadow of a person and can no longer be portrayed as a man with a handlebar moustache, an evil glint in his dark eyes, wearing a black full-length coat and a hat, and looking to tie a damsel to the train tracks. The protagonist’s nemesis has morphed into characters of substance, someone who has plans, take calculated risks, and willing to do whatever it take to achieve his/her goal while eluding capture. As writers, we must dedicate the same effort in characterisation for the perpetrator as we do for our main character.

Today’s villain can be anyone, such as a bully in a children’s story or a murderer in a crime story or even a ruthless and power-hungry individual. Stories need a villain but the perfect villain is not all evil. That person has to have good points as well to give the character depth, such as a murderer might be good to a sibling. The antagonist must be three-dimensional.

Unless something unexpected has happened to turn a character into the antagonist, there should be a history of wrongdoing. Ordinary and law-abiding people don’t usually wake up and commit a crime or moral injustice. Those traits have to be there to begin with. The wrongdoing should be measurable, where the next action is worse than the previous. And with each action, the person slips further into his/her own dark world.

Antagonists need to be faced with difficulties as well. Of course, the protagonist’s actions in the story may be enough to cause our villain annoyance, but can you delve further? Are there other characters (knowingly or unknowingly) interfering with the antagonist’s plans? Is there some other conflict that burdens the antagonist? Perhaps a bully is bullied at home. Or a person may have murdered someone to protect another person, but tread carefully with this scenario – a person would still have to be capable of such an action. It would change that person for life and he/she would have to deal with being captured as well as nightmares and anguish over taking someone’s life.

While the reader may disagree with the villain’s actions from a moral or legal point, the writer must ensure the reader understands the villain’s actions. And if the writer can cause the reader to feel sympathy for the villain, then that writer has created an in-depth character. As strange or uncomfortable as it sounds, get into your villain’s headspace and think what actions you would undertake for the plans to succeed. Who stands in your way and how will you deal with them? Actually, as a writer, you should step into all your characters’ headspaces to ensure their actions and thinking are unique to them. It’s easier than looking at a character from a distance and guessing what that person would do next.

Be mindful not to slip into using dialogue that has been overused and should’ve been tossed out decades ago. Powerful and intelligent dialogue will make your villain a worthy adversary, whereas ridiculous and wince provoking declamations and comments will surely turn your villain into a cartoon buffoon where readers will wish for an anvil to fall on his/her head.

When you’re breathing life into your villain, make sure they:

  • have redeeming qualities as well as negative traits
  • have wants and needs like everyone else
  • doesn’t perceive themselves as antagonists to the protagonists (from the villain’s viewpoint, those roles are reversed)
  • believe their actions are justified and reasonable
  • are intelligent, otherwise they would be caught in chapter two (where’s the fun in that?)
  • encounter conflicts of their own
  • use believable dialogue that is commonplace for the period of the story (avoid cheesy cliché’s and speech that is stereotypical of villains).

 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Rules About Non-Fiction Writing

There are rules that apply to writing non-fiction aimed for scholastic or technical publications, newspapers, magazines, e-publication, or books.

Get Your Facts Right

Don’t presume, guess or surmise. A factual article should be conclusive of its information. There will always be someone out there that will know about the topic you’re writing and will recognise presumptions dressed as facts. If you’re writing for a publisher, then you will not only bring yourself into disrepute but also your publisher as well. That means you may not be published next time you submit your work, or at least with that same publisher.

All information needs to be researched thoroughly whether it ends up being part of the publication or not. In fictional writing, the author has to know the backstories of each character that plays a significant part in the story, whether all that information is revealed is up to the author. In non-fiction, it’s the writer’s duty to ensure the information presented is accurate and can stand up to an expert’s scrutiny.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Scholarly, science or medical articles or books require in-text citations and references. It’s wise to have professionals in the same field approve your piece and possibly get that approval in writing so you can include it in your book. Unfortunately, a newspaper article has neither the room nor the interest level to include an expert’s accolade of your work. Although, if the article is published on the internet then that may be possible if an expert posts a favourable comment at the end of the article.

Quotes

Including quotations serves to break up lengthy paragraphs, thereby encouraging the reader to continue, while substantiating your article. A quote from a professional strengthens a non-fictional piece of work. Factual articles without direct quotes or reinforcement of factual information may be viewed disparagingly. When you do quote someone, ensure you state clearly their full title and their representation.

Examples:

Dr Michael Greene of XYZ University stated that …

Dr Michael Greene, a biologist who has been studying this field for 20 years, has documented similar experiences …

Dr Michael Greene of XYZ University said, ‘…’

Note: In Australia, we do not put a full stop when shortening a word like ‘Doctor’ (Dr) if the last letter in the word matches the last letter in the shorten form.

Direct quotes must contain quotation marks. While double quotes (“ ”) are still acceptable, the single quotes (‘ ’) are the Australian preferred quotation mark.

Personal Opinions

One of the biggest mistakes authors can make is including personal opinion as the right one. Your opinion may be clouded by experience, which can sometimes be unique and not shared by others. Stick to the facts and what esteemed professionals have proved rather than your take on a subject. However, if you are a professional in the field that you’re writing about, then sharing your opinion may be valid but avoid using it as an opportunity to force your views as right and another expert’s opinion as wrong.

 

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Fiction Writing

Most writers have probably heard the advice ‘write what you know’. While this holds true, American Author Flannery O’Connor’s ‘start with anything you can make real’ approach is less stifling and opens the door to creative possibilities.

Many people who take up the craft of writing turn to fiction. Perhaps writers gravitate to fiction because everybody has a story to tell. You can create fiction from life or from your imagination. You can create fiction that tells a 500-page story or one that tells its story in a few pages.

Unlike other genres that fall within the non-fiction world (such as memoirs), writing fiction allows limitless imagination. You can invent worlds and create ordinary or awe-inspiring characters dealing with real issues, the supernatural or heart-stopping terror. But it takes more than just imagination.

Story Concept

It’s vital to have a concept or idea in mind first. Once you have this, it’s a good idea to plot your story. Remember to have an unexpected twist or two in the story; a basic structure of a beginning, middle, and end; and a thorough knowledge of your characters. Fiction takes dedication, so be prepared to spend a great deal of time on it.

Enjoy the Ride

When writing fiction, don’t make readers arrive after the crisis has happened, have them on the edge of their seats waiting for that big bang.

I watched Jessica disappear under the car.

Could become:

Jessica stepped back onto the road to take in the whole sunset over the mountains. A loose rock stole her footing just as a car hurtled down the gravel shoulder and headed straight for her. I leapt towards her, willing my legs to move faster. I shouted, but it was too late. I glimpsed Jessica’s wide eyes before her body disappeared under the moving vehicle. Her fading screams echoed through the deafening screech of brakes and the sickening thud of flesh mingling with metal; burnt rubber filled the air.

Now we can see it, hear it and feel the anguish and pain – we’re experiencing the action as it happens.

Give Life to a Scene

Read your work out loud. This will help to expose many grammar errors that can slip in or phrases that don’t make sense. It allows you to get a better feel of how your manuscript is flowing.

As writers, we learn how to describe a scene, but are you describing it efficiently?

The sun shone on the golden sand as the spume pulled away from the receding waves that struggled in the sand.

This certainly paints a picture, but is it doing enough? If we add the other four senses then it may become something like this:

A salted sea breeze crept towards the shore and mingled with the day’s humidity. The sun threw down unforgiving rays of fire that scorched the sandy beach. Rolling green waves crash upon the thirsty sand while hopeful seagulls cried out beneath the clear blue sky in search of food.

Not every setting will have something for each sense, but stop to notice the sounds, tastes, smells and tactile elements. Remember that these sort of descriptive passages have their place. They tend to slow the pace, so you wouldn’t have a full on descriptive passage in the middle of a scene where you want to create excitement or urgency.

Characters

Most novels and short stories are about a person or group of people with a goal. In many cases the events of the story dictate that goal. This can be as simple as a teenager deciding to take a job at the local surf shop, because he has a crush on a girl who works there. Everyone he meets and everything that happens in this village can be linked to the romance.

Develop your characters. Decide on the traits your characters will possess and give your characters experiences. If someone is a gentle and kind person then you may have that person help an elderly man with a chore or drive him to visit his grandson. A mean spirited person might stomp on a child’s favourite toy. Sticking a quick-tempered person, who is running late for an important meeting, in a traffic jam on a hot day has potential for the writer. The character could rant and rave, even kick the car if it boils over. It shows the character’s demeanour and keeps the storyline interesting. Use situations that stimulate emotion and create a fuller storyline. Emotions also help readers relate to your characters.

Dialogue

Make the characters believable.

A small feed store supplier whose customers are mostly farmers isn’t the kind of personality who’d say something like this:

I apologise for the delay with the arrival of your order. Our courier experienced a shipping displacement that should be resolved in twenty-four hours.

It would be more likely for this character to use language that would suit the clientele. If the customer were a farmer, then perhaps the employee would say something like this:

Sorry mate about your hay order. Somebody put it on the wrong truck heading the opposite direction, but it’ll be here tomorrow, you can count on it.

A person who had little education would speak differently to someone who was a scholar. A business person would talk differently to a rock musician. Think about who your characters are.

Add a Twist

Referring back to our story about the teenager working at the surf shop for the love of a girl could end with a happy ending, but what else could happen? Think about the possibilities. After several dates, the surfer realises this girl isn’t for him, but in his attempts to win her over he has become a skilled surfer. He competes against the best and wins. He gains popularity and a sponsor where he meets the sponsor’s daughter. You could even throw in another twist and have the readers reeling in their seats wondering what else was going to happen.

Revise, Rewrite and Edit

It’s more than just taking your manuscript from the seeds of imagination to having it actually written, it still has to be presented to readers (and appropriate publishers if that’s the way you want to go). Your story needs to be a saleable product. You may dream about being a professional writer with your books in stores all over the country. However, publishers care about their investment in a product and how well that product will sell. That’s why it’s up to you to present the best copy to a publisher.

Publishing Options

Once you have finished and it’s ready for publishing, you need to consider which publishing avenue you want. If you want to obtain a publisher, your focus turns to a synopsis. This gives a perspective publisher a clear understanding of what your story is about in clear concise paragraphs. Don’t be afraid to reveal the entire plotline to your publisher. They need to know your book is worth their effort and the money it takes to produce, market, and ultimately sell it. If they don’t think it will sell then they won’t accept it.

Unfortunately, not all good manuscripts are accepted. You may have written a worthy story, but if it doesn’t fit the criteria that the publisher is looking for or if they have already produced something similar then they may not present you with an offer.

If you want to self-publish, you’ll need a book blurb to help sell your book to readers. This publishing option means you will need to cover the cost of front cover and layout designers, editor and proofreader, printers, and marketing. While you’ll have complete control as to what your book will look like, you have to handle all the work, make all the decisions, and organise designers and printers. With the exception of printers, the rest of the workload and expense still applies if you opt for self-publishing an e-book. Self-publishing has improved writers’ dreams of being published, but whichever way you want to go, enjoy the journey.

 

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay