Give Your Protagonist An Anomaly To Generate Interest And Make Your Book Stand Out.
Stories tend to blur together after a while. Reading the Bookbub descriptions each day of those books on special, they get numbing. I once submitted a bunch of ideas to an agent; he came back with: “I see fifty of these a day. Give me an interesting character. Re-read Day of the Jackal. Give me a character dossier like that.” After all, we know from page 1 of that book that the Jackal will fail. DeGaulle wasn’t assassinated. So why read it? Because the assassin is so interesting and his plan so unique.
It makes sense. Think of your favorite book. Do you remember plot or character? Yet so often we focus on plot as writers. When I gave the keynote at Thrillerfest a few years ago (and will be there this year), I talked about pitching. I told people that when they saw me afterward, walking around looking dazed as I am wont to do, feel free to pitch me and I’d give honest feedback. Since these were thrillers– well, I got numbed out by the words: Al Qaeda, nuclear weapons, CIA, SEALs, Special Ops, FBI, biological weapons, etc. etc. They all sounded roughly the same. I told them give me an intriguing character. A Jack Reacher.
So how to do this?
Your basic story dynamic is the Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse) because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .Goals (the external, concrete things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing).
The Protagonist: Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with: smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different. Consider giving your protagonist an anomaly. What this means is they have something in their character that doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ who they appear to be. Russell Crowe in LA Confidential is, in essence, a thug cop used as muscle. No one thinks he’s very smart. But from the very beginning of the movie, he goes out of his way to protect women in peril, even when he has no vested interested. Why? That ‘why’ is a hook that keeps you following his character. This anomaly gets explained eventually.
How do we get a character anomaly out quickly? To give us some commonality, let me use some popular tv shows:
A private investigator with OCD– his name is Monk.
A brilliant diagnostic doctor, addicted to vicodin, who hates people but saves their lives. His name is House.
A southern belle in LA, always wears dresses, had affair in previous job with new boss, who heads a major crimes unit in LA and is a superb CLOSER. (Fish out of water story)
A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides to start cooking meth. His name is Walter White.
Some had really good ideas, but the character just didn’t cut it:
LIFE: What if a LA cop is wrongly convicted of murder, sent to prison, but then is exonerated by DNA and as part of his settlement gets 50 million dollars AND his gold detective badge so he can try to find the real murderer.
Good idea. The writing was decent. But the character just didn’t pop. Lasted one season. The anomaly they tried to give the character didn’t work: he buys a huge mansion with his money, but he doesn’t put any furniture in it. Besides not being very interesting, it doesn’t make sense.
STANDOFF: A male-female hostage negotiation team who are secretly having an affair, have it revealed during a hostage situation.
The writing on that show was actually very good. Some excellent episodes. But if your hero and heroine are involved from the pilot, you don’t have that Moonlighting or X-Files sexual tension.
Remember also to consider extremes when writing about characters in order to involve your reader more intensely. You can have a good character and a bad character. But would the reader prefer to see an evil character and a noble character? Think of personalities as a pendulum and understand that the further you swing that pendulum, the more involved the reader usually will be. Therefore, take any very positive trait you can think of and try to find its opposite. Do the reverse. Then use those traits to develop your characters.
Your protagonist must be in trouble, usually not random.
Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred. Usually, we must meet the protagonist by the end of the second scene. Right away you’re signaling something to the reader if you introduce the problem before the protagonist and vice versa.
Your protagonist must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal. Note I say external and specific goal — something tangible. Don’t confuse goal with motivation.
We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist. Don Maass in How To Write The Breakout Novel says that redemption is the most powerful character arc. The problem is having empathy initially with a character who needs to be redeemed. So we must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly. In the first scene where we meet them, we must see them do something, often a very minor thing, sometimes even just one sentence worth, that resonates in the reader’s subconscious that the character has the potential for redemption.
The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene. This is something you should check after your first draft is done. Take the protagonist from the opening, throw her into the climactic scene, and the bad guy should win. Her arc is the change that allows her to triumph where she wouldn’t have before.
The protagonist drives the main storyline story. You have one for one main story line. You will always have one protagonist and one antagonist. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who is the protagonist?
Why? Because he always comes up with the plans. “You keep thinking Butch; that’s what you’re good at.”
In Lonesome Dove who is the protagonist? Even though we might love Gus the most, the protagonist is Call, because he keeps the plot moving via the cattle drive. Also he is the one still standing at the very end, right back where he started from.
Remember that your protagonist is only as good as the antagonist is bad. There would be no Clarice Sterling without a Hannibal Lecter.
What is your protagonist’s anomaly?
PS: Next Write on the River Writers Workshop is sold out. So we’ve scheduled another 16–17 April. Already one slot is gone to someone on the waiting list. 3 left. If you have any questions, drop me a line.
Originally published at writeitforward.wordpress.com on February 23, 2016.