Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gondolier’s What I Learnt in Riting Skool

OMG, you came back? Yes! Take your seats, pull out your Trapper Keepers and purple pens, hand over your bubble-yum and let’s dive into today’s lesson, shall we?

You’re Having a Baddie! Part 2: The Naughty Protagonists

Okay class, who can tell me what we learned about last time? I will give you a hint in glorious haiku form:

Baddies from real life

Grabbing readers by hoo-hoos

Fear rushes through veins

For those of you are not enlightened by haiku, the strongest, best baddies are drawn from your own personal experiences. Before you even create your storyline, sketch all of your characters’ traits, flaws, conflicts, motivations, and backstory. The choices your goodies and baddies make determines the direction your story will go, so you need to know them inside and out (cough).

In Part I, you were introduced to Jessica Morrell’s fabulous morality scale, as illustrated in her book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to write the bad guys of fiction. Your villain falls somewhere on this scale, depending on how wicked they are, which lines they’re willing to cross, and their motivations. In this article, we’re focusing on the higher end of this scale—antiheroes, unlikeable protagonists and unreliable narrators. (Really evil villains might call them ‘posers’.)

[Jessica Morrell, p. 18 of Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction]

Unlikeable Protagonists

When a protagonist is likeable, it’s easy for readers to get behind them. Generally, most people are decent. They enjoy following protagonists who are like them. When a protagonist is unlikeable, however, this presents a different set of challenges. Jonathan Segura, reviews editor for Publishers Weekly, says this about unlikeable protagonists and readers:

“It is tougher, I think, to write an unlikeable protagonist, because a lot of readers will put down a book if they can’t relate to (oh, how I hate that phrase) or sympathize with (also hate that one) the protagonist. It’s sad, really. Many, many, many of the great characters in literature are traditionally unlikeable. They’re also complex and wonderful to read about. But, really, if a person’s reading tastes are so narrow that they’re only into narratives and characters that reflect their own limited worldviews, well, what can you do? I just wish there weren’t so many of them out there. And they all have blogs.”

It would be fantastic if all readers were open-minded enough to explore the possibilities of an unlikeable protagonist. But if a writer is savvy, they can help readers understand their unlikeable protagonist’s behavior enough to follow them through fire or flood. This is why crafting a solid backstory is crucial. If readers don’t see something in the protagonist they can latch on to, they’ll chuck your story across the room.

Why use an unlikeable protagonist? My homegirl Jessica Morrell says that writers use them “to make a statement about the human condition, the human heart, society’s ills, or difficult and raw truths.” Unlikeable characters should be three-dimensional to prevent them from becoming your soapbox. Readers need to be given at least some access to the protagonist’s head, even when it’s off-putting. Also, characters surrounding the unlikeable protagonist should provide a moral and behavioral contrast.

A great example of an unlikeable protagonist is Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a miserly, miserable old man who deserves what’s coming to him. But once readers get a glimpse into Scrooge’s past and find a lonely boy neglected by his parents, they begin to see him in a new light. They may not like Scrooge, but they understand what made him who he is and hope for his redemption.

[Image: Ebenezer Scrooge encounters "Ignorance" and "Want" in Dickens's novel, A Christmas Carol. John Leech.]

Well-known Unlikeable Protagonists:

“Sherlock Holmes” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Edmund Dantes” in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

“Scarlett O’Hara” in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

[Extra credit: One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to create a perfect character. The story is unrealistic and readers become passive. So here’s the trick—get into the head of your baddie. This might be really uncomfortable, especially when they are immoral. But in order for your characters to be realistic, you need to put yourself in their shoes. Inhabit them. Listen to their dark secrets, feel their vulnerabilities, even if it makes you queasy. Once you have a better understanding, you can write them well.]

Unreliable Narrators

Before moving on to those delicious antiheroes, let’s chat about a type of character who can fall anywhere on the morality scale: the unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator happens when the credibility of the person telling the story is questionable. The unreliable narrator can be an actual character within the story (first-person narration) or a third-person storyteller (crazy-ass narration). The reason they are unreliable depends entirely upon the writer. It could simply be the narrator is biased, has blind spots, or is unaware of things that could change their perspective. The narrator might have mental issues that hinder their ability to tell the truth. Or the narrator might just be a liar, delusional, or dumb as a rock. It’s up to readers to determine when the narrator can be trusted, and with what type of information.

Unreliable narrators mimic real life. It’s human nature to exaggerate, gloss over unsavory details, or keep certain aspects of their lives secret. When writing an unreliable narrator, you have to understand their motives. What does your character not know? What are they avoiding or refusing to see? Whatever their reasons, they will dictate how the unreliable narrator tells the story.

[Extra credit: If a writer withholds too much info from readers, they become manipulative and pretentious. But if they give too much away too soon, the story falls flat. The key to writing an unreliable narrator is to pace your clues. Look at it as a game of hide-and-seek between you and your reader. When you are sketching your storyline, make a list of hints or clues that foreshadows the narrator’s version vs. the true version, then copy/paste them into your storyline. This will help your pacing tremendously.]

At first, readers may not realize they are dealing with an unreliable narrator. They may sense that something isn’t quite right as breadcrumb hints are scattered along the path, but the whole loaf may not drop until the end of the story. Or readers might have an “A-HA” moment right away, because circumstances, other characters’ words and actions show that the narrator’s credibility is compromised. The reader must then comb through what the narrator says. According to Morrell, “when the reader is forced to analyze the real dynamics of a situation, rather than the narrator’s version of things, it makes the experience of the story more personal.”

Well-known Unreliable Narrators:

“Anonymous” in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

“Scout Finch” in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“Humbert Humbert” in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


The antihero. The hybrid (coughRenesmeecough) of heroes and naughties. They embody both the admirable traits of the good guy and the flaws of a baddie, making for a fascinating, personality-driven story.

“Antihero” very broadly describes a wide range of protagonists that walk the fine line between morality and immorality. Some lean good, some lean bad. So, how do you even begin to decide what kind of antihero you want for your story? My bff Morrell breaks antiheroes into the following spanktacular categories: Everyman, Vigilante, Charming Criminal, Dark Hero, Bad Boy, Reluctant Hero, Loser, Outcast, Screwball, Disgraced Hero, Oddball, and Rebel.

[Extra credit: When sketching your antihero’s character, draw a line down your paper. In one column, write “Negative Traits”; in the other, “Positive Traits.” For each negative trait you give your character (e.g., controlling, hot-tempered, selfish, ruthless), give them an opposing positive trait (passionate, charismatic, honest, perceptive). When you practice this, create a balanced, complicated antihero that has oodles of depth.]

Let’s muck through each type for a brief glimpse at what makes them, them. Readers, gird your loins and buckle (or unbuckle) your chastity belts…these guys and gals will take you for a tumultuous ride:

EVERYMAN: Everyman is never extraordinary. He or she isn’t charming or charismatic, handsome, elite. Everyman is you and me. This type of antihero is meant to be a relatable depiction of humanity. They may fold under pressure. They sometimes make poor choices. They probably don’t handle challenges or conflict in the best manner (Don’t Panic!), either rashly charging ahead or bolting at the first sign of a fight. Like any antihero, Everyman can learn from their experiences and triumph at the end of the day. Or they may not, because again, Everyman mimics life. Whether they have their happy ending is entirely up to you and your character.

[(L-R) Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), Ford Prefect (Mos Def) in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy]

Well-known Everymans:

“Arthur Dent” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

“Bettina Balser” in Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman

“Holden Caulfield” in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

“Bella Swan” in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (oh yeah, I stick her in this category despite her sparkly status in Breaking Dawn)

VIGILANTE or TARNISHED KNIGHT: Frank Castle. Batman. V and Evey. Dirty Harry. Almost all of your comic book superheroes, bodyguards, or Old West gunslingers fall into the vigilante category. Vigilantes are those antiheroes who forgo the law and exact justice using their own methods. They are the ass-kickers. They have their own moral code—when you first sketch your vigilante, you need to determine what that code is and make sure they adhere to it. Vigilantes are probably the closest to actual heroes you will find in the antihero classification, because of their purer goals. They probably aren’t going to be shining pillars of the community—the may have questionable morals, but they have good intentions. To them, the end justifies the means.

Well-known Vigilantes:

“Robin Hood”, traditional legend

“Dexter Morgan” in Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

“The Snicket Family” in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

CHARMING CRIMINAL: Crime is bad. That’s what they teach us, right? It hurts others and adversely affects society. Yet there are those criminals we can’t help but like, even if we’re wrong to do so (my heart flutters over the entire gallery of rogues in Ocean’s Eleven). Charming criminals are enchanting to read because of their witty banter, nonstop action, or their good qualities amid their flaws. They are typically one step ahead of the law, skirting authority and scamming corporations using ingenious tactics. The trick to getting your readers behind a charming criminal is to highlight their humanity. For example, Danny Ocean pines after his ex-wife, Tess, and is using the great casino heist to show her what an ass-hat her new guy is. Jay Gatsby spends his entire life trying to make himself worthy of Daisy, only to fail because of his poor choices.

Well-known Charming Criminals:

“Red” in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

“Simon Templar” in The Saint series by Leslie Charteris

“Jay Gatsby” in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

DARK HERO: These are our TTTs (towering, tempting, tortured) heroes—idealized but flawed. This, ladies (and maybe a gent or two?), is who we rip our bodices for. Our angst-ridden, dark heroes, aka Byronic heroes. We love them because we want to nurture them, redeem them. Probably the oldest type of antihero, dark heroes didn’t really gain popularity until Gothic novels became all the rage. They’re typically misunderstood loners who dress in black (or custom pea coats and bouffants). Dark heroes are almost always brooding and handsome, and are sometimes saddled with a scandalous reputation. Other characteristics include high intelligence, cunning, mystery, seductiveness, sexual dominance, and often arrogance. Dark heroes can easily become cliché if you don’t properly give them a detailed backstory as your plot unfolds. Angsty dark heroes with no reason for their angst are just plain whiny.

Well-known Dark Heroes:

“Edward Fairfax Rochester” in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“Heathcliff” in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

“Stephen Dedalus” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

“Edward Cullen” in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (dur. He may be humble, but he’s a Byronic hero, no doubt.)

BAD BOY: Like vigilantes, bad boys (and girls) also have their own moral code and are typically anti-authority. Unlike vigilantes, though, bad boys initially don’t have a higher purpose they are fighting for. Rather, they are stumbling, almost endearingly lost (I said almost). They have a host of bad habits, and defiantly cling to those bad habits. Their moral code is often disturbing. Bad boys are fiery, rebellious, greedy, brusque, unapologetic, and erotic as hell (we’re talking Dr. Gregory House, people. Cool-Hand Luke. Are you getting turned on? I am!). They make people uneasy. Readers usually cannot relate to bad boys. However, in order for your bad boy to be an antihero, you must somehow stir reader sympathy for them. Amid their slew of bad habits, give them a characteristic, a past, or even a desire that somehow ennobles them. And don’t confuse bad boys with dark heroes. Dark heroes are tortured. Bad boys are exasperating.

[image: Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair]

Well-known Bad Boys:

“Lestat de Lioncourt” in Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice

“Becky Sharp” in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

RELUCTANT HERO: These are your Ordinary Joes—no heroic pretentions here. Not to be mistaken with Everyman, reluctant heroes don’t necessarily mimic life. Reluctant heroes are typically self-serving loners with troubled pasts. They have little desire to move beyond the status quo. They are considered reluctant because they are pulled into conflicts in which they want no part, but almost always rise to the occasion when need demands it. Han Solo in Star Wars is a great example. Han claims to be looking out for number one—and he is. But as he becomes embroiled in an epic battle between good and evil, Han must choose who to side with. He’s an obnoxious, reckless mercenary, but who doesn’t cheer (EEEE!) when he comes screaming across space in the Millennium Falcon to save Luke’s bony ass? Neo in The Matrix could also be considered a reluctant hero. So could Po in Kung Fu Panda….

Well-known Reluctant Heroes:

“Bilbo Baggins” in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Lemuel Gulliver” in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

LOSER: Losers, like Everyman and the reluctant hero, are (yawn) ordinary. But loser antiheroes take it to the extreme. They start their tale at a low point in life—plain, dim-witted, doughy or scrawny shlubs who can barely make it through the day. They are ill-prepared and ill-suited for the challenges that arise. Losers have self-esteem issues, are unsuccessful, and sometimes can’t hold down a meaningful relationship. Think Homer Simpson. Joe in Joe Vs. the Volcano. It’s nearly impossible for the reader to see how this character could triumph in the end. And often, the loser doesn’t. Isn’t that cheery?

Well-known Losers:

“Walter Mitty” in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

“Willy Loman” in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

“Pat Hobby” in The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

OUTCAST: When a writer chooses to use an outcast antihero, it’s because they want to comment on some facet of society. Outcasts have defied societal conventions by flouncing acceptable behavior and/or morals. They acknowledge, even revel in the fact that they have done so, whatever their reasons—guilt or shame, anger, revenge. Through their separation from society—whether ostracized or self-imposed—their story will always serve to highlight a belief or way of life the writer wants readers to think about, even question—something they normally might not do.

Well-known Outcasts:

“Erik” in The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

“Hester Prynne” in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Huck Finn” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

SCREWBALL: If you want a good romantic comedy, use a screwball as your antihero. Screwballs screw up in epic, hilarious fashion. Mistake after mistake builds upon itself, leaving readers shaking their heads, wondering how this character could possibly dig out of the hole they’ve put themselves in. Usually, but not always, the character stubbornly refuses to change, which lands them in even more trouble. Screwballs spur twists in your story, forcing other characters to hop to action, either cleaning up the mess or one-upping the screwball move. Stories that use screwball antiheroes move quickly and have both clever dialogue and side-splitting scenarios.

Well-known Screwballs:

“Bridget Jones” in Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

“Tom Jones” in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

DISGRACED HERO: Nothing is sadder than a once-great hero who has been overwhelmed by his own personal demons. Disgraced heroes often have self-destructive behaviors, stemming from troubled pasts in which a mistake, or several, cost them something dear. Perhaps they made a poor choice and someone lost their life. Or maybe they are ex-military and haunted by survivor’s guilt. They are very similar to dark heroes, but have a touch more vigilante in them. Think hard-boiled private eyes. Small-town sheriffs who drink themselves under the table. One-time golden boys who’ve been dealt a blow. Like most antiheroes, the disgraced hero is typically a loner.

Well-known Disgraced Heroes:

“Sam Spade” in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

ODDBALL: Oddball antiheroes are your nerds and freaks. To the average passerby, they just don’t fit in because of their quirky, eccentric ways. They tend to either slip into the background or stand out because of their strangeness. Others tend to ridicule or avoid them. Oddballs inspire reader sympathy, however, because they have insight into their private lives. A natural tension is created because of the oddball character’s status in society. And yet, some secret ability or character trait causes them to rise above the pack when occasion calls for it. Adrian Monk, that cleaning-neurotic, OCD detective is a classic oddball antihero.

Well-known Oddballs:

“Odd Thomas” in Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

REBEL: Last, but not least, we have our rebels (le sigh). When we think of antiheroes, it is the rebel that often comes to mind. While most antiheroes have a rebellious nature, a rebel antihero has a cause. Something has happened that forces them to outright fight the status quo. Like outcasts, rebels shine light on some aspect of society they feel needs attention. The difference, however, is the rebel intentionally sets himself against a facet of society or representative character that he finds distasteful. They create a new culture, a new way of life: Beatniks, hippies, any person or group who forms a new sub-culture. Because they dare to rebel, these antiheroes are often in direct opposition with other characters. They are considered misfit, and sometimes meet tragic ends because of their causes.

[image: Jack Nicholson as Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest]

Well-known Rebels:

“Idgie Threadgoode” in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

“Randall McMurphy” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

[Extra credit: Sit back, relax, and get into your most judgmental frame of mind. I am giving you permission to do this!! Reflect on people who have come and gone in your life that irritated the hell out of you. What characteristics drove you crazy? Start with the big ones, like racists, cheats, liars, adulterers. Perhaps they were hypocritical ass-kissers. Maybe they were drama queens. Now think about habits…did they smoke or smell like a distillery and drink like they owned one? How about hygiene—did they chew their fingernails and spit them out? Wear an overwhelming amount of perfume? Once you’ve come up with a good list, save it for future reference. Use this as a database when you need to draw inspiration for a new character.]

That’s all for today, kiddies! Gather up your book bags, slap bracelets, and I<3edward>

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wordcraft knowledge with the likes of fandom. She demonstrates her tremendous skills with every chapter she posts of her wondrous story, Hydraulic Level 5. Bitch Leah anyone?


  1. i'm a reader, not a writer. i am awed when writers reveal how much work goes into their craft. it's easy to assume that writers are just natural talents...their stories came to them in a dream and so they wrote it down, ya know *wink*??? it is a real treat to see what goes on before fingers begin tapping on the laptop. i really am grateful for all of the thought and time invested in delivering a fantastic read. thank you gondolier for a very insightful article. mwah!


  2. I really loved this article. Full of great information that will get me thinking more and at a most auspicious time for me, because I'm just getting to a point in my story where I'll be introducing a whole spectrum of not so nice characters. Darker characters are so much fun to write, but it is a fine line to walk. And how much do I love you for mentioning some of my favorite books and characters? Lestat! IDGIE!!

    Of course it's all your fault if I spend my whole day re-reading Fried Green Tomatoes now instead of attending to the pile of chores I have to do.

  3. My favorites are always the Dark Heroes...give me a Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester or Edward Cullen any day ;-)

  4. Just like the last, this was brilliant. And I still need to read yer story...

  5. This is really well-written and your use of examples highlights the subtle differences between each type of anti-hero (bookmarking... now!). And the opportunity to rip my bodice is probably why I read in the first place. :)


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