Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tip O'Day #251 - Sympathetic Protagonist Needed?

Dixon challenges the notion that you need a sympathetic protagonist.

Experts often tell the writer that a protagonist must be likeable – somebody the reader can empathize and sympathize with. Well, that’s nonsense.

Agatha Christie’s most famous creation, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was creepy, snobbish, bombastic and self-centered, taking delight in tormenting his assistant. Even Christie called him “insufferable.” In John Grisham’s novel The Brotherhood, which involves a group of blackmailers operating from within prison walls, there’s not a sympathetic character in the book. The people being blackmailed are even scummier than the convicts. For another example, think about The Godfather. For a time, Michael Corleone seems admirable, since he resists entering the family crime business; then he kills a crooked cop to avenge the shooting of his father, so that’s understandable, right? Eventually, he turns out just as corrupt as his father, even killing family members. Lovable characters in this novel? None I can recall.

My recently-published novel The Assassins Club concerns two serial killers. One is a complete wacko, a disorganized schitzo controlled by the voices in his head. The other is Tyler Goode, a young man in his mid-20s who accidentally becomes a killer when he’s cornered by the town bully, and then kills again when he’s stalked by the bully’s younger brother. He feels like he’s performing a community service, “taking out the trash” and rebalancing the scales between good and evil.

When Ty continues to kill – it’s become a habit he can’t shake – why should the reader continue to turn pages.? He’s a murderer who deserves whatever justice will eventually befall him. Except I want to explore his psyche further, and I’d like to have the reader come along for the ride. So I tried a couple strategies. First, I gave him a dead family – two doting parents, and a wonderful brother and sister – who are wiped out in a hit-and-run accident. Ty feels the world is out of kilter because of these good souls being removed while evil seems to flourish wherever he looks. Second, I portrayed him as shy and insecure, and then I gave him a sweet, trusting girl as his romantic interest. He feels guilty about continually hiding his secret life from her. He feels protective of her, not wanting his hobby to endanger her. He feels fulfilled for the first time in his life.

Hopefully my strategies make this antihero human enough that a reader will tag along for curiosity, to see what happens to the young man with an unusual pastime and a loving girlfriend he must hide it from. My critique group thinks it works. Maybe you will as well.

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