Protagonists I Would Like To Put In A Sack And Drown*

Goddamn it, Jacob, stop hugging me so I can go unleash a plague or some shit.

1. The Earth Angel. So fucking perfect all the fucking time, until you just want to smash their imaginary face in. This character is sometimes known as the Mary Sue, but that’s fucking sexist and also ignores the term’s origins in fan fiction. So I’m going with Earth Angel, because this character, whether male, female, another gender, or entirely genderless, is so goddamn perfect that they stop the story dead in its tracks. Nothing ever happens that they can’t fix perfectly, with no consequences or fucking it up or accidental deaths or anything. Snore.

2. The Psychopath. Dead, emotionless, usually bad-ass, and completely in control. I don’t know how this became a thing—though I’m looking hard in your direction, American Psycho—but it is creepy as hell. If your protagonist relentlessly mows down others in order to get their own way, then I’m probably rooting for the villain.

This doesn’t mean characters can’t be selfish. Selfishness is part of being human, and a healthy amount of self-interest drives characters to make interestingly poor choices. But a dead-eyed hustler who uses other people as a means to an end and then discards them without a second thought? Someone put a scorpion in their Armani jacket, will you?

3. The Lump. Need a character who does something? Look elsewhere. This often-found problematic protagonist never actually does anything. Instead, they’re relentlessly shoved around the story by other characters, like a leaf on storm-force winds. They might as well be a camera lens for the reader to see the story, an dispassionate observer of the events. The good news is their dead weight will be enough to drag the Sack of Crappy Protagonists into the briny depths.

4. The Emo Sad-Bag. We get it. You’re fucked up. You hurt. But, for the love of Christ’s most holy butthole, do you have to keep talking about it? Or thinking about it? Or generally sitting around like a mopey sack of crap, looking in mirrors and sighing wistfully?

Into the sack. Try not to drown in your own bravely-held-back tears before we get to the shore.

5. The Idiot. I cannot deal with stupid protagonists. Short-sighted is fine; bright but not as smart as they think they are is even better. But genuinely stupid, to the point of making bad choices for no goddamn reason at all other than the author needed a way to move the plot along? Get in the sa—actually. You don’t go in the sack. The lazy author who created you goes in the sack.

What about you? What protagonists can you not abide?

*As always, your mileage may vary. Someone out there must love psychopath characters, or they wouldn’t keep getting written.

Muffin Basket From The Evil Queen: Creating Characters With Depth

Go ahead. Try one.

In most stories, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell who is who. The difference might be fine–you might be choosing between two kinds of asshole*–but you can usually tell who you should be going for. Good versus evil.

But good and evil aren’t that far apart, especially when it comes to people.

I prefer to think of good and evil as a progression. A sort of line with nauseatingly good angels on one side and mindlessly boring devils on the other. Where your characters sit on this line is largely due to their actions, but, and this is important, their position is not static.

Fact: good characters do evil things. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe they think they’re doing the right thing. Maybe they think the ends justify the means. Maybe the good thing is just so hard, so they slip and take the easy way out. Real people do this all the time, so why wouldn’t characters?

Likewise, evil characters do good things. Sometimes it’s to maintain an image. Sometimes it’s to fool someone. But sometimes they do a good thing because they want to.

Characters with depth slide back and forth along the line of good and evil. They might be mostly one or the other, but they’re not all one or the other. The good prince strikes out in a moment of jealousy. The evil queen aids a quest because the adventurers remind her of her friends from childhood.

If you want your characters to have depth–to be believable, because there’s no one out there who makes the right choice every single fucking time–then slide them back and forth along that line. Make their choices count. Give them consequences. They can come back to their core alignment, but it should be a choice, not a given.

Because static characters are boring characters, and, in fiction, nothing is worse than boring characters.

*Which I’ve never felt is a great story. I love a good anti-hero, especially when they’re contrasted with other characters, but having everyone be a dyed-in-the-wool bastard out only for themselves is boring. And interestingly, I’ve never read the reverse: a story where all the sides have good points and you don’t want anyone to lose.


In Praise of Incompetence

Critical failure: it happens to everyone.

Never underestimate the value of incompetence. In characters, I mean, not in real life. Try to be good at shit in real life.

But that’s the point: we try to be good at stuff in real life. And we’re not. Not at everything. There’s some stuff you’re good at, and then there’s everything else. Some of it you’re average at, and some of it you downright suck at.

So why, in aspiring writer communities, do I end up reading about so many protagonists who are awesome at everything? It’s not only not realistic, it’s boring.

We want our protagonists to be good at stuff because we want to be good at stuff. But it’s boring to have someone succeed all the time. There’s no struggle. There’s no stakes.

They don’t have to be completely fucking incompetent, because no one wants to read about someone who has to have their ass saved by other, more competent characters all the fucking time.* But they shouldn’t be unrealistically awesome at stuff that they have no reason to be. A woman raised in a nice, normal middle-class family in suburban Canada probably doesn’t know much about handguns. A man whose only driving experience is his daily commute to the office shouldn’t be able to pull off a perfect bootlegger turn when shit goes down.

Clearly, there are exceptions, but the point of exceptions is that they are exceptional. And, yeah, it’s awesome to have exceptional characters. But, one, their exceptional-ness should make sense in some way. Maybe the lady mentioned above can tell a Glock from a Sig Sauer because her grandfather was in the army and retained a love of firearms that he passed on to her. Maybe the driver knows how to do a bootlegger turn without crashing into the trees because his wife once bought him a week-long stunt driving course for their anniversary. There’s some interesting story mileage in those scenarios, but it’s not a given. There’s a reason.

And, two, they shouldn’t be exceptional at everything. Everyone struggles. And they should, because that’s where the story is.

Besides, it’s not very interesting to have someone start out completely bad ass. It’s far more fun to watch someone become that way, through trial and failure and teeth-gritted, balls-to-the-wall effort. It means something then. If it comes too easy, it’s not a story, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Better to have them fail. And then try again. Because that’s what the rest of us do.

*Note that this is my problem with Y:The Last Man, an otherwise interesting series. Yorick is pretty fucking useless, and more interesting characters died repeatedly in order to save him. He might improve, though. I’m not done yet.


All The Feels: Making Character Deaths Count

Here lies old Skully Face. He was a skully face.

Here’s a familiar story:

Plot, plot, plot, character does something, plot, plotty plot plot, character does something else, plot, character dies and it’s so fucking tragic. Why can’t you see how tragic this is?!?

Except that it’s not tragic. Because, according to my super-technical summary up there, that character didn’t do much of anything. The plot did stuff, but the character was mostly just along for the ride. They were driven, not driving.

I call this the bystander effect. Too often characters in stories that die are not important. They were either plot devices or someone with so little impact on the other characters that they might as well have had a sign around their neck reading I exist only to provide the protagonist with a tearful moment. If you’re alert, you can see the death coming because that character serves no other purpose.

It’s no good just telling people that an event is tragic. No one likes being led around by the nose. And your audience is smart. They will know when they are being forcibly led, and they will resent you for it like kids being guilt tripped into eating their vegetables by Mom’s descriptions of starving people. And then they stop reading.

Here’s how you make a character’s death count: make them an actual character. They should do things with other characters that have emotional weight. They should have an affect on the world around them. They shouldn’t just be a Feels Delivery System from central casting.

There are shorthands you can use for this–mostly family relationships–but be careful. You might think that your protagonist’s brother dying is a big deal, but unless he had something to do he might as well be a random pigeon that got knocked out the sky. It’s got a hell of a lot more impact if you show your protagonist’s older brother looking out for her and then dying. Then she has to carry the weight of his death as well as the fear that no one can help her now. It makes her hesitate before getting close to people because he already sacrificed himself to save her and why does everyone she love die?

All the feels. Just because her brother was a person with a real impact on her life instead of a random bystander wearing a tag that said “main character’s brother who dies conveniently lolz”.

Remember: every character in a fully realized world is the protagonist of their own tale. They have things that they want. So they will interact with your protagonist with that in mind. They’ll try to move things in their direction. There should be the sense that, if you suddenly stopped following the main character and started following this other guy, the story would not grind to a halt. It might be a different story–and in the case of Brother, likely a shorter story*–but it would still be a story.

Don’t tell me to feel. Make me feel by giving me a reason. And I’ll be with you until the closing pages.

*Also a tragedy.

Stakes: I Like Mine Bloody

English: Hand I'm bored Español: Mano I'm bored

Me too, hand. Me too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading over one of my short stories the other day, trying to figure out what was wrong with it.* I knew there was something, but damned if I could see what it was. It had a lot of things I like: love, robots, horrible wrongs being done, sarcasm. The characters did stuff. Things happened.** There were no explosions, but, hey, explosions aren’t right for every situation.***

It wasn’t until I was watching Catching Fire that I figured it out. Watching that movie is like having a Tension Beast wrap its claw-covered paws around your guts and squeeze: OHGODTHISISHORRIBLE….Oh, but things are okay for a bit….ANDNOWIT’SHORRIBLEAGAIN.**** I don’t know how people eat popcorn during that movie. It confuses my fight-or-flight instincts. I’d probably attack the popcorn bucket.

That’s when I realized what was wrong with my story: there were no stakes. Therefore, there was no tension. Therefore, I was bored titless.*****

Reading it over again, I see the problem bold as brass. It’s an interesting idea, yes, and the characters are fun, and there are interesting things happening, but without a sense that there is something at stake, then it’s just kind of ….meh. And nowhere in the story do you ever get the feeling that this needs to be done. The audience needs to know that there are consequences to things not going as planned. Shit will go down. As it is, there’s just a vague feeling that something might happen. Maybe. Or maybe not. The biggest consequence of things not going according to plan is…that things don’t go according to plan.

So I am bored. And if I am bored, editors will definitely be bored.

Without a sense of the stakes—defuse the bomb or the kids die, find a cure or be turned, ask the boy out or remain alone forever—plot becomes an intellectual exercise. The audience needs to realize that there is something to lose here. It doesn’t always have to be a thing, either; it can be losing a relationship, losing a friend, or losing face. But there has to be risk, and it has to be real.


* I do this a lot. And not just with writing: paintings, cookies, sketches, things I’ve knit…they all get the ‘what’s fucked up about this’ stare. Kinda hoping it doesn’t extend to any children I might have.
**You’d think that’d be a given, but I’ve read enough bad literary fiction to know better.
***Just most situations.
****Trying to avoid spoilers here. Take notes, internet.
*****Just learned Scrivener corrects ‘titless’ to ‘titles’. And, man, lot of footnotes today.

Monday Challenge: Wrong Choice Combo #2 With Extra Fortune Cookie

An oyster pail (Chinese takeout container) con...

Can I get that poor life choice with a side of Felt Good At The Time Sauce? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Characters are sad, fucked up little bastards. They ask the wrong questions, fuck the guy they know they shouldn’t, say things just to hurt people, drink the jar of bubbling green liquid marked ‘Poison, Seriously, Don’t Touch’, and generally exhibit what our high school guidance counselors called “poor life choices”*.

At least, the good ones do.

Here is a hurdle at which many otherwise decent writers fall. The instinct as Story Gods**, since we make all the choices for the characters, is to make the right choice. Or at least not a badly, horrifically damaging one. Because the characters are us, in a way, and if we know what the right choice is, why would we make the wrong one?*** At least if we know what the worst possible choice is, we’re not going to do that.

Are we?

Evidence suggests that human beings make those kinds of choices all the fucking time. Sometimes we do it because we’re confused, or angry, or want to hurt someone, or want to hurt ourselves. Sometimes we do it because we think we’re making the right choice, but it later turns out to be Bad Choice Number Three with a side of Bastard Sauce, Extra Hot. Part of it is because, being humans instead of Story Gods, we don’t fucking know what the right choice is sometimes. But a bigger part is just people being people. We fuck up so much we could do it for a living.

Monday Challenge time, godlets: Someone has to choose. It could be a life or death choice, or it could be what sock to put on first. But, whatever they choose, make sure they choose wrong. And write what happens next.

*I knew a guy in university who double majored in Poor Life Choices and Passing Out In Stairwells. They were related subjects.
**I’m trying this out as an alternative to Writer. I think it will be a more interesting way to introduce myself to people at holiday parties.
***Again, I know a guy who does this. More than one, actually.

Meanwhile, Somewhere In My Brain…

A koala climbing up a tree. Taken on the 28th ...

I like to think she came up with the idea while being attacked by drop bears.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can you all hear me? Can you—hey, quiet down there! No, no one wants to see your battle hammer, dude. No, I don’t care that it’s in your pants. Now shut up.

Wow, there’s a lot more of you than I thought. That could be a problem. All right, I gathered you all here today because—what’s that? You hate that guy? Yes, I know. You’re supposed to. He’s one of the antagonists. Antagonists. ANTAG—the bad guy, all right? Just…look it up. When you learn to read.

Here’s the thing: you’re all imaginary. You’re the characters in the first draft of the novel I’m working on. All of you. Some of you are good guys, some of you are bad guys, a lot of you are something in between. But you all have something in common. Aside from being imaginary, that is.

You’re all too perfect.

Even those of you who are bad guys are just too fucking pat. Too on the nose. Most of you lack a certain…complexity. And that’s not necessarily your fault. You’re just new. The zero draft pass is about ideas, and that’s what you are. But now it’s time for you to become characters.

I was discussing this via text with a friend who’s in Australia, and I think she gave me the clue. Working on one of her own characters, she finally figured out why said character wasn’t working: she wasn’t broken. All characters are wounded, in some way, and that wound informs their actions. But this one wasn’t. There was no damage in her soul. Just like there’s none in a lot of you.

This can’t stand.

So, here’s what needs to happen. A couple of you are all right. You, there, the killer with the knives, you’re not bad. And you, the first level bad guy, you’re okay, too. If the two of you could just sort of go to one side…what’s that? No, you don’t have to stand by him, miss. You two are going to be spending enough time together.

The rest of you, come over here. If you’re going to stick around this story and be worthwhile, you need to be more broken. I want to see your damage. I want to feel it. And if you don’t have any, then I’m going to give it to you. Hell, some of you might not even exist after this is over. But it’s necessary. It’s for the good of the story.

Now form an orderly queue, and…

Hey, where are you all going?

Mutants: You and Your Protagonist

English: Mixer from an AM 130

Coming up: one seriously messed up plot twist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not one of those people who believes we should only write what we know*, if only because that’s so goddamned limiting. But there is a time when we should take stock of ourselves and use something we find there: the creation of our protagonist.

This isn’t a call for the continued existence of Gary Stu/Mary Sue and all their uninteresting brethren. No one wants to read about a character that is your ideal, all right? No one. Not even your mom.

But when it comes to your protagonist, the one who will carry the story through its long and winding pages, there should be a little bit of you in them. Not much, mind. Maybe a heart valve or a fingernail. Just something, down at the core, that feels like you. A stem cell.

Why? Because you need to know that character intimately, deeply, and the only way to do that is to have an in. A way for you to burrow into their brain like the parasites from that back-alley sushi. Then you can sit in their control box and say, “I know that you will do this.”

Now, they shouldn’t be too much like you. One, you’re straying into Mary Sue territory there. Two, no one wants to read about writers except maybe other writers and then you enter a recursive feedback loop which may well destroy us all. And, three, the most important of all, you are going to fuck this character up. Physically, emotionally, mentally. And having the character be too much like you will make you hesitate. Or might make the solutions too easy. And we can’t have that, can we?

So, where’s the line? How much of yourself do you put into this darling little protagonist that you’re about to toss into the shark tank that is Story? Here’s my thought: they should be enough like you that you can understand them, but different enough that you’d be willing to put their hand in a meat grinder if it made the story work.

Take a tiny petri-dish sample of you, and grow it into some horrifying mutant version, with superpowers or heavy weaponry or freeway on-ramps for arms, until it doesn’t resemble you at all. But remember that stem cell, that core, that back door into their head. It might be a way of dealing with anger, or a favourite hobby, or a disturbing family member. And use that back door to explore all their other parts until you understand them.

And then get the meat grinder ready.

*I prefer ‘write what you have adequately researched’ or ‘write what you can bend your own experience into’. Not as snappy, I’ll admit.

Entertain Me: Thoughts on the First Person POV

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...

You’re a jerk, Holmes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading a lot of first person stories lately,. No reason. Just worked out that way with my to-read list. But it did make me think, so here are my entirely unsolicited thoughts on the first person narrative:

1) The narrator has to sound interesting. Not just be interesting. Lots of characters are interesting but that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good narrator. There needs to be a distinctive voice, a manner of speaking* that draws in the reader. Something I’ve noticed: characters that are a little bit cocky make good narrators, at least for me. Especially if they have a sense of humour. But then I don’t like misery memoirs, so I’m not that interested in listening to some sad bastard go on about their life. It’s among the many reasons I never became a therapist.

2) It has to be the right narrator. First person is automatically limiting. The reader can only see what that person sees. Which is why it’s really fucking annoying when a first person story is solved by someone else at some time when the narrator is not present. All you get then is a recap. And I’m left thinking, “Why the hell are we following the story from inside this fucker’s head? Clearly that guy has more of an impact.” It’s like watching a concert from seats behind a pillar. If you had the chance, why the hell wouldn’t you move to another vantage point?

3) The narrator has to be active. They have to have some fucking impact on the story. Otherwise, why bother with their point of view?
However, they don’t have to be the mover. Sometimes the sidekick, like Watson from Sherlock Holmes, works even better than the main character as narrator because the main character is kind of a dick. Or just a character it’s more fun to watch than to understand.

4) They don’t have to be honest. Ambiguity can be good, whether it’s deliberate lying or just faulty memory. The narrator for Stephen King’s Duma Key states that “when it come to the past, we all stack the deck.” So while his story is a good one, there is room for doubt. For the possibility that he is remembering things differently than they happened.

5) But I shouldn’t want them to die in a fire. A narrator that I actively hate? Not a good read. I should not be rooting for the aliens coming down the hall to pull his guts out through his nose. They don’t have to be a prince among narrators, but they shouldn’t be obviously despicable. Or, if they are, they should save that reveal for the end.

That’s what I’ve got so far about first person. What’s your point of view? Do you like first person? Hate it? Tell  me your thoughts so that I may consume them and steal your powers for my own get a new perspective.

*Or thinking or whatever it is that first person narrators are doing. Sometimes it’s clear—Dolores Claiborne is very clearly speaking to someone—but other times it’s not.

Little Bundles of Horror: Raising Characters


Behold the Destroyer of Worlds. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Characters are like kids. When they first turn up, they’re more of an idea than a real person.* There’s potential there, you can feel it, but they just lie around and do nothing. They, like babies, are not done yet.

But once they’ve been around for a little while (characters grow faster than babies, thank god), they start to fill out. They get personalities, reactions, emotions. They take up hobbies sometimes. They become more real.

The point of this rambling monologue is that sometimes characters, like kids, need some time to grow before they become anything interesting.

Now, this isn’t true of all characters. Some of them just pop up, fully formed, Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus**. These are the ones that seem like magic, like something from outside, because they turn up all finished. For me, a lot of these tend to be my bad guys. I don’t know why. All I know is, if I need a really loathsome son of a bitch or a fucked up person that you can kind of understand but who takes things way, way too far…I’m your woman. Those guys turn up all the time. You’d think my head was a convention for them.

But other characters, especially my protagonists***, I’ve got to spend some quality time with them before they become real people. At the beginning they’re just formless character blobs, not always indistinguishable from each other****. Then they start hanging around in my head, eating all my food and watching inappropriate things on Brain Television. They check out memories and skills and habits, taking on some, leaving others, inventing new ones if they don’t like anything I have available. ***** They change, trying on new identities.

The more time we spend together, though, the more they solidify and gain colour, until one day I look around and I’ve got a functional human being on my hands.

And then they go out on their own, all shiny and fresh-faced, and wreck untold havoc on their worlds. Honestly, I couldn’t be more proud.

*Sorry if this insults anyone who’s got one, but it’s a fact: babies aren’t done yet. Give them a couple of years and then they turn into people, but in the meantime they’re more like goldfish.
**Anyone ever wonder about that? I mean, I’ve had some headaches myself, but…
***There is one exception to this rule: David, the narrator of a short story I wrote called “Dog Fight” in Unearthed.  He’s an odd one, and I sometimes feel like I should write more about him. But I digress.
****Again, like babies.
***** “You want to be an expert in what? Pornographic Japanese woodcuts? Seriously?”