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Monday, June 13, 2011

Strengths and Your Protagonist

One of the reasons I love having a real-life critique group is that I learn even when I'm not the one being critiqued. For our meeting this past Saturday, one of the members had contributed a zombie story, and another member, unsure what to do with it, had gone through the trouble of finding an online guide to analyzing ironic fiction.

It never would have occurred to me to look up something like that, since I grew up bilingual in English and Sarcasm, but since I write a lot of humor, I snatched the article from the good critiquer's hands...only to discover not that much I didn't already know.

Except for one thing.

We all know about character flaws. A villain is arrogant and therefore discounts the one minuscule chance in a million that the heroes might just somehow be able to shoot a plasma bomb into the air vent and blow up the death star. "I think you overestimate their chances," he says, moments before he's floating through space in a million different directions. And we see this in protagonists too, where the protagonist has to overcome his weakness in order to solve the main conflict, and in a tragedy, often he doesn't.

But this article mentioned something I'd never considered: that sometimes your protagonist's strengths are going to get in the way of solving the problem.

Think about that for a moment. Think about the real people in your life for whom this is absolutely true: the organizational genius who could plan a mission to Mars but whose family gatherings are fodder for a letter that should go viral the week before Thanksgiving ("Please do not use the over-size blue serving dish you used last year.")

When a character's strengths are what stand between him and resolving the conflict, you've got an amazing story on your hands, because the reader will sense the tension: we don't want a conscientious worker to become a slacker, for example. We know he won't want that either. But we'll also recognize as readers when this hard worker is burning himself out or needs to rely on someone else's help, only he won't do it.

Every character trait has both positive and negative aspects, of course. To give an example far too close to home, take the writer who can create worlds and people, and makes her deadlines, but who has three loads of unfolded laundry on the couch. The trick would be (and this is not only for "ironic fiction" but for all fiction) to have the positive side of the character trait be what's standing in the protagonist's way.

A karate black-belt is able to use his opponent's strength against him. Your villain should be able to use the protagonist's strengths the same way.

Consider the possibilities: a forgiving protagonist who lets the villain get too close because she believes he's changed. A loyal protagonist who remains faithful to a leader he doesn't realize is taking advantage of him. A logical, intellectual protagonist who needs to follow the lead of his emotions in order to solve the conflict (or an intuitive, intense protagonist who needs to stop following his emotions and trust his analytics).

In all these cases, a character would need to retain those good character traits, not overcome them. And the challenge of the writer would to supplant what is good in the protagonist with an even greater good.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the flawless Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Oh, very cool! Why bring in an extraneous character to make trouble when Our Hero can stand in his own way. I need to ponder how this might help my stalled WIP.

Vonna said...

"A karate black-belt is able to use his opponent's strength against him."
I love a good, manipulative villain!

Jennifer Lane said...

Nice observations about the pros and cons of character strengths. I had my main character's caring nature work against her when a manipulative mafiosi became her therapy client. It's a little harder to become angry with the protagonist for making mistakes when those mistakes flow from personality strengths.

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments. Donald Maass also has similar perspectives about the protag's character: define her/his most prominent trait and then develop the direct opposite. These would work against each other, per your examples.

Anonymous said...

What a great observation! I'd never thought of using the protagonist's strengths that way, but it's rife with possibilities. Thanks for sharing!

Gypmar said...

Interesting! I am reading the Chaos Walking series right now, which illustrates this idea really well. The MC's strength of being unable to kill is exploited by the antagonist(s) throughout the books. Many of the plot twists in the books rely on this dynamic.