So, here’s what I’m sick of seeing: whiny-butt, victimized protags with no passion, no desire, nothing driving them forward in life and no one about whom they care or who cares about them.
I’m tired of the disaffected characters. The cold fish. The ones made inert by their past wounds and inner demons. The ones who are whispered about, stared at, burdened with the title of “other” and made to stand alone. Or who CHOOSE to stand alone because they feel unworthy of being part of a larger community.
So many novels I read—published and as-yet-unpublished—contain a kind of “cool” narrative. A dispassionate veneer. Or a pulled back cinematic objectivity that makes me feel as though I’m watching characters but not, really, LIVING them.
And yet the books I love—really and truly love—do NOT keep me at arm’s length. They’re not about the victimized girl with a gang of “frenemies.” They’re not about the aloof anti-hero whose moral code is as slippery as oiled ice.
I’m speaking just for myself here, but I do challenge all of you to give some consideration to the stories you love, the characters you love, and to ask yourself how warmly those characters come across on the page.
Are those characters defined by their oppression or by their determination not to let oppression define them?
Are they victims or champs?
Are they all alone with no concern for others or part of a larger community that may present difficulties but for which they’re willing to fight?
It’s true we don’t have to LIKE characters in order to be engaged by them. But is it WRONG to want to like them? To want to admire them and spend time in their psyches because those are not only interesting but INVITING places?
A character can still be loved and have those loved ones present powerful opposition BECAUSE of their connection. A character can still hope and dream, be funny and thoughtful, and meet all manner of opposition in his/her pursuits.
Loveable doesn’t mean dull. Loving doesn’t mean weak. It means that we’re already invested from the very beginning of that character’s journey.
So, ask yourself, from the very first page of your novel:
- What does your protagonist WANT, and how does he/she move, actively, toward that goal?
- How does your protagonist feel about him or herself? What traits does he or she secretly admire?
- What traits do OTHERS admire in your protagonist?
- Who does your protagonist love?
- Who loves your protagonist?
- What dreams live in your character’s heart?
It’s easy to believe that a tortured and barely likeable protagonist is the only path to high drama, to a deeply felt transformation, but I’d like to challenge that view. Almost everyone I know is loveable but flawed. Almost everyone I know has had deep and dramatic struggles. They don’t have to be jerks to be interesting.
Find the fire and the warmth inside your protagonist and breathe it to life.