A blog about writing and all things story…
Lackluster protagonists lead to lackluster stories.
At the heart of every story is a character with a quandary – the more gripping the character, the more interesting quandary. To avoid writing an uninspiring story you should strive to understand the dark side, the shadow side of your protagonist as well as your antagonist.
An interesting protagonist makes things happen – shifts, shoves, and jostles the story along through actions and decisions. Remember, if your protagonist isn’t doing something that inspires and affects change, you’re the writer; rewrite until he/she does.
What would Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (GWDT) be without Lisbeth Salander? It would be a boring, long story about one man’s family secrets and another man’s attempt to unearth them. Okay, mildly entertaining. However, once Lisbeth is on scene, she thrusts that story forward with every move she makes, and she makes some dark and disturbing moves and yet, has the capacity to change, transform from her dark self to a light and loving self; we see glimpses, and in those glimpses we hope for her damaged soul, don’t we.
Lisbeth has something to lose, something to gain, interesting flaws, compelling secrets, rebellious attitude, she has an interesting enemy (or enemies), a desire to do right, she’s the underdog – then the big dog, she’s a dangerous woman, she’s a tender lover. This is one heck of a complex character. You write that character and drop her into any story and the story will be a page turner. Heck, write about her grocery shopping and I’ll bet you have dramatic tension just by having her appear on scene. Conversely, you take her out of GWDT and you have a mildly interesting story, not the mega trilogy hit it was.
Psychologist Carl Jung believed that ‘in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.’
I say, know your character’s shadow self and then delve deep into that well of creativity.
Think of the mega hit Breaking Bad. How believable would the chemistry teacher, Walter White be if he didn’t have cancer (tension & motivation), need money for his family before he dies in two years (stakes/time table) and so starts to sell meth (dark solution to his problems). Out of sheer desperation Mr. White shaved his head, bought a black hat and birthed an alter ego, his clandestine alias Heisenberg. Now that’s a fascinating character who makes decisions that catapult the story along.
Consider some classics like Rambo, how interesting (and effective) would he have been if he was a goodie-two-shoes marine afraid to go against authority. Or Die Hard, if John McClane (Bruce Willis) was a by-the-book cop without a chip on his shoulder. Or The X-Men without the wounds that made them bigger than life heroes.
So, create characters with UNIQUE wounds, then, once your protagonist is a mover and a shaker, you need to make sure he/she moves and shakes for a good reason. Like Mr. White/Heisenberg’s cancer and desire to leave his family in good financial shape, or John McClane in Die Hard who was effective and believable because his wife was being held hostage (stakes) and he had everything to lose. Or Lisbeth Salander, who drew on her shadow to deal with a world gone mad.
And let’s not forget your antagonist; this character must rise to the level of the protagonist or the win will be an empty victory. And as in Breaking Bad, you need to put all your characters in interesting situations, which Breaking Bad did brilliantly.
Don’t know where to start; read Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler or my recent favorite that ties it all together, The Outlaw’s Journey. Long time writing instructor, and author of The Outlaw’s Journey, Gloria Kempton knows how to bring demons (shadows) into light–she does this at a local prison where she works with hardened prisoners, often lifers, guiding them to discover the hero inside themselves, be accountable for their actions, and if not understand, at least embrace their shadow self. I did a review of her book a while back, read it here. I’m a huge fan of this book as a guide for getting in touch with your character’s shadows, creating relatable characters and a little writer-self therapy. God knows we all need some.
So, go to that shadow self (yours and or your character’s) in order to write a compelling story. Remember, lackluster protagonists lead to lackluster stories. And nobody wants that.
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By Miri Elm
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