Why a bad protagonist is actually quite good #writing #amwriting

I am a big fan of protagonists with dubious character traits. There is something about a blurry line that adds flavour and depth. In fact, if the protagonist was to stop and consider themselves, they might think they were on the wrong side of that invisible virtuous line.

So in short, I like my protagonists…to be bad.

Why is a less than perfect protagonist good?

If you are the kind of person who goes to the gym 5 days a week, then going 5 days a week is no big thing. BUT, if you struggle to go once a week, then 5 days in a row is pretty impressive! And so with our protagonist. The more reluctant they are, and the more doing something good or heroic chafes, the more interesting it is when they are finally forced to comply.

As a reader, the more confused you are about the protagonists virtue, the more the tension grows. Will they do the right thing? Are they capable of doing the right thing even? Or are they just too damn lazy?

And what about our antagonist? Are they wholly bad? Or do they have redeeming qualities? Do you empathise with them at any point in the book? Perhaps their behaviour has been abhorrent, and then you discover a terrible secret about their past that casts new questions onto everything they have so far done.

There is a certain fascination with a good guy who is not completely good.

And likewise with a bad guy who is not completely bad.

The secret to a great antagonist – character backstory – writing

You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world ~ John Rogers

Everyone, good or bad, acts within the bounds of their personal belief system. Understanding that our antagonist sees his or her actions as justified, or even reasonable is a fascinating insight to have. Do they act to survive, be it financial or physical survival? Do they not know any better? secret

Character backstory is a vital collection of information we use to make decisions on how our characters act, and more importantly why. When we create a strong connection between our antagonist’s actions and their backstory we create a strong and believable antagonist.

When we write it is natural for the focus to be on the protagonist—it is their story after all. But I think the antagonist and their life journey is just as essential to producing a great book, and a believable source of conflict.

Few people are quintessentially bad; some are, but not many. Others are an eclectic mix of motivations that can drive them to risk their life to save an abused dog, only to stab a human victim without any seeming remorse.

Many are driven into the role through circumstance, situation, or the cards that they have been dealt. Perhaps they are hardened to cope with a hard world, unloved, or miss-understood. Perhaps they don’t know anything else.

Whatever wicked or cruel things we intend our antagonist to do, we should consider how it fits within their belief system. This belief system is established by their life journey and the events that can happen either before or during the book.

A childhood trauma:

  • Cruel parents
  • No parents
  • Violent neighborhood
  • Other abuse

It could be a survival instinct:

  • If there is only food for one
  • The last seat in the escape pod
  • The last shot of antidote

end of the world

It could be something physical:

  • A blow to the head that changes their personality
  • Drugs, alcohol and other addictions
  • A disease that wracks their body with pain and drives them mad
  • A deteriorating mental condition that is not noticed or goes untreated
  • A mental disorder such as psychopaths, sociopaths.

A traumatic event:

  • War
  • Famine, and other natural disasters
  • The loss of a loved one through violence or even through natural causes
  • Betrayal

natural disaster

Faith, religious or otherwise:

  • Event causing them to lose faith
  • Events causing them to gain faith
  • Losing faith in an important role model such as father-figure, priest, teacher, best friend
  • Faith in the wrong kind of mentor, such as organized crime
  • Faith in what seems like the right kind of mentor but who is underhand or misleading

Culture and Society

These can be considered whether in the modern world, historical fiction, or futuristic fiction. Anywhere cultures, worlds, or people collide the common belief of what is right or wrong could prove very different.

  • Societal: what may seem cruel now may have been considered normal and commonplace a hundred years ago
  • Cultural: corporal punishment for stealing is considered cruel in some cultures and normal in others.

You can also combine the causes.

  • For example not every psychopath is a killer—it’s a well known fact that many excel in the corporate world where their personality style allows them to make cold calculating decisions without any apparent remorse—and excellent antagonist material already. However, a psychopath who was abused as a child is much more likely to go on to become a killer.
  • What about a man who suffered childhood abuse, and then loses his beloved grandmother who was the only person keeping him on the straight.

Asking yourself why your antagonist is doing what he or she is doing—taking the time to really get inside their sullied head—will add depth to your story and create a believable backdrop for your hero to excel.

Another interesting consideration is that many of these life challenges can also provide a test for our protagonist, and overcoming them is what makes them so great.

Is your protagonist confused?

I may have mentioned this before, but I am a big fan of protagonists with dubious character traits. There is something about a blurry line that adds flavour to their character depth. In fact, if the protagonist was to stop and consider themselves, they would be firmly on the wrong side of that invisible virtuous line.

So in short—I like my protagonist confused.

So here is an interesting analogy to help in the confused protagonist debate: If you are the kind of person who goes to the gym 5 days a week, then going 5 days a week is no big thing. BUT, if you struggle to go once a week, then 5 days in a row is a pretty impressive feat. And so with our protagonist. The more reluctant they are, the more doing something good or heroic chafes, the more interesting it is when they are finally forced to comply.

As a reader, the more confused you are about the protagonist, the more the tension grows. Will they do the right thing? Are they capable of doing the right thing even?

And what about our antagonist? Are they wholly bad? Do they have redeeming qualities? Do you empathise with them at any point in the book? Perhaps their behaviour has been abhorrent, and then you discover a terrible secret about their past that casts new questions onto everything they have so far done.

There is a certain fascination with a good guy, who is far removed from being good. And likewise with a bad guy who is not completely bad.