Left Behind Fridays Writing Seminar: Unsympathetic Protagonists Are Fine – As Long As You Realize That’s What You’re Writing

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Two weeks ago, in my post on Designated Heroes, I mentioned that one of the two most common causes of a Designated Hero is values dissonance: the character behaves in a way that the writer believes to be admirable and heroic, but which is actually nothing of the sort.

Now, as I pointed out in that post, and as Fred points out in this one, it is entirely okay to have an unlikeable or morally-questionable protagonist.  The tradition of the antihero goes back a long way, after all.

(Far enough back, in fact, that it once meant something very different.  To the ancient Greeks, the defining characteristic of a hero was arête – roughly translated, excellence.  It was more important for a hero to be great than to be good, and for someone to lack all heroic qualities, as an antihero does, meant they were pathetic instead of amoral.  Think C-3PO instead of Han Solo.)

The trick is, if you’re writing an unlikeable character, you have to know that’s what you’re doing.  In NRA: Stealing From The Starving, Fred gives us some hints how to tell the difference.  Granted, not everyone is a hardcore authoritarian who believes that demonstrating one’s authority (aka bullying people) makes a character look awesome, but this can give you some hints how to filter for your own prejudices.

Incidentally, this scene also illustrates the point from last week’s post, that you have to think the situation through in your writing as best you can.  To wit:

1)     Chicago – or rather, O’Hare Airport – has been hit with multiple (!) 100-megaton (!!!) nuclear bombs.  Buck should be driving his “fully-loaded Range Rover” (oh, we’ll get to that) into an irradiated crater…assuming that it hadn’t been killed by the EMP and that he could find some roads.  Traffic shouldn’t be an issue.

2)     It’s difficult to communicate the terror of living under the iron boot of a police state when the only time you see that police state’s power is when the heroes use it to intimidate somebody.

3)     As Fred points out, it’s difficult to build suspense about whether or not a character will be able to keep their membership in a secret society secret, if one of the other characters is completely open about it and the Big Bad doesn’t care.

4)     Incidentally, that last point is one of the many reasons it doesn’t work to have your characters be both: a) proud evangelists of your values; and b) secret agents.

5)     This problem is compounded if you insist on telling the story only from the perspective of your self-insert protagonists, then try to tell a story of cosmic scope.  You have to find an excuse to insert them into everything…including the Big Bad’s inner circle.

All avoidable problems.  Once again, research, re-reading and outside eyes are all your friends.  They can tell you when you forgot an important detail or when your hero is being a dick before it gets to this point.

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