Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Down with Wimpy Protagonists!

Yes, the protagonist’s journey must resemble an arc from weakness, confusion, or shortsightedness to growth and maturity. That’s how he or she earns the happiness of the ending, granting readers the satisfaction accompanying that. And yet.

Of course we don’t want to blame the victim! But we don’t necessarily adore victims, either. We sympathize and willingly offer support, pity, concern, possibly money. But love? If heaven helps those who help themselves, readers love those who help themselves even more. Spunk is a big draw.

Empathy correlates with the reason for the protagonist’s problems. When life deals you an unjustly crummy hand like poverty, an abusive partner, or incurable cancer, we root for you. It’s not your fault! There are no easy answers. Even the questions might be unclear. But if the problem’s primarily insecurity, an annoying boss, or too much jealousy, this might evoke different questions. Did someone promise you a rose garden? Do you know that others suffer starvation? Homicidal spouses? Incurable tumors?

Every protagonist needs a flaw. But external pressure causes the protagonist to conquer this weakness. Whether the limitation is moral or psychological, there’s no better way to build arc. That’s how story works: The audience watches plot drive someone toward greater personal and universal good.

So weakness can only be a single facet of a personality that’s complex, energetic, and appealing. Otherwise—yawn, rather than watch this struggle to transcend self-pity, readers might just as well have a petite snooze.

The source of arc isn’t voice or description or a terrible childhood or a depressed outlook. It’s a cornered protagonist facing a moral dilemma where the single choice is growth toward heroism.

Here’s how you might offer that to your readers:

Give your protagonist a sense of humor.
Make your protagonist maintain a positive outlook.
Grant your protagonist an immature yet beautiful soul.
Ground your protagonist’s problems firmly in the external world.
Don’t weaken those around your protagonist. Instead, empower your protagonist to rival the strength others exhibit.
Trap your protagonist.
Trap your protagonist much, much more.
Eliminate every viable escape route.
That’s how to shape an arc. Everything we need to know already exists in our own minds and hearts. This applies to your protagonist, too.

Tip: Appealing protagonists suffer more from circumstance than personal weakness.

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