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.