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Wednesday, June 30, 2010


In his workshop at the Backspace Conference in New York in May, Donald Maass spoke about developing three types of protagonists: the ordinary person who finds himself/herself embroiled in what will be your mind-bending plot, the true hero or heroine with heroic qualities, and the dark protagonist.
We've all been each of the three types of characters in our own life stories, at one time or another. And the dark protagonist, that character who has a stained past, who is pursued by unnamed internal demons, the character who is on the run from an evil pursuer, makes for a fascinating character--and, from the writer's perspective, a character fun to create!
In the thousands of manuscripts he reads, dark protagonists are plentiful, says Maass. And they can work well for a story, but he cautions against turning the reader off within the opening paragraphs. Maass says that many times the flaws of this type of protagonist are fatal, and readers will find little appeal in investing hours of their time in following a character writhing in suffering and pain throughout a story.
So if your protagonist is a dark character, what can you as the writer do to make that character appealing to a reader without losing that magnetic draw?
The trick, says Maass, is to somehow make that character highly likable, or at least admirable.
In Fire in Fiction, Maass talks about how Joseph Finder, in his business thriller Company Man,gives his flawed protagonist Nick Conover the redeeming characteristic of a man trying to keep his kids happy after the death of their mother a year earlier--and he establishes this very quickly in the story. (Read this great interview with Finder by fellow Backspace member and author, Lauren Baratz-Logsted.)
What else can humanize a dark character to a reader? Maass gave several suggestions, and many more in Fire in Fiction. A character can be deeply flawed--but self-deprecating at the same time. Maass asks: "Who hasn't kicked themselves?" And a flawed character who has the self awareness to judge himself harshly can earn a reader's respect.
A flawed character--a loser, a hopeless down-and-out wanderer--can still love. And if that love is demonstrated quickly in the story, the reader will identify with the character.
Maass asked those of us in the workshop who were writing about a dark protagonist to sit quietly for a moment and think about our character. He then asked us: What is the one thing the character would wish to change about themselves, if they had the power to do so?
And the hard part: now think of a way to demonstrate that desire, that wish for change, within the first five pages of the manuscript.
And remember, Maass reminded us, every scene in your story must impact and/or transform that character.

13 comments:

Drue Allen said...

Rebbie, I suppose these "heroes" can be merged, right? What would a reluctant hero be? That's my absolutely favorite. The guy who doesn't seek out the limelight, but gets thrown into it by circumstances. I so dig this guy, and I could write a hundred books about him. Hopefully I'll get that chance. : )

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Rebbie,

I agree that the "perfect" romantic hero is actually a flawed, dark character. The character with no flaws simply isn't realistic.
The flawed hero who makes the noble, honorable gesture despite imperfections is always more endearing. I believe my "hero" in TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS is such a character. Time will tell if others agree.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Rebbie: I, for one, so appreciate your sharing tidbits from the Maass workshop. I don't have "dark protaganists" but I think the advice you gave applies to other heroes as well, like the desire to change should be demonstrated in the first part of the story. All of what you said are good checklists for making sure we have a likeable character. Thanks for sharing!

Tiffany Green said...

Excellent information, Rebbie. I find the dark hero fascinating, although very difficult to get right. As Mr. Maass stated, the danger is the reader may find nothing to like about the dark hero and put the book down. This is something Blake Snyder also identifies in his book "Save the Cat." If nothing else, have the hero save the cat.

Cate Masters said...

I love complex heroes. Gena Showalter does an amazing job creating dark heroes.
I had to send for a copy of Maass' book after your last post, lol.
Thanks!

Terry Odell said...

Barry Eisler's John Rain and Lee Child's Jack Reacher come to mind. And Dexter is a success as a television show. It's all about creating empathy for the character, which is true whether or not the character is a hero or an anti-hero.

Rebbie Macintyre said...

Drue, I'll look forward to reading your "reluctant hero", so good luck with it. I think Maass would call it the ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances.
Can't wait to read what you come up with!

Rebbie Macintyre said...

Cate, I wish I had a commission from Donald Maass! I really think he's terrific, and I hope you get as much from his book as I have. I've read it several times, and keep it for reference as I'm writing.
Thanks for the post.

Rebbie Macintyre said...

Tiffany, I agree--dark protagonists are difficult. I've always been attracted to the ordinary man called to action, as Drue mentions.
Glad you got something from the post--it's all Maass' amazing ability to analyze fiction.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Rebbie,
Dark protagonists are difficult to write and to like, but if an author can do it, they are on a sure fired winner in my humble opinion. I love dark tortured heroes who are eventually redeemed by the woman they love.

Cheers
Margaret

Irene Ziegler said...

Informative, helpful, well written post. Thanks.

Rebbie Macintyre said...

Thank you, all, for your comments. One of the benefits of going to a good workshop is sharing the information with other writers. :)

Kara Lynn Russell said...

Rebbie, thanks for sharing this. I've heard wonderful things about this teacher.