a truly bad protagonist

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Thread: a truly bad protagonist

  1. #1

    a truly bad protagonist

    I'm currently brainstorming a new project in which the protagonist is bad.

    Not bad in terms of actions - he isn't violent or anything - but beliefs. He's a successful far-right newspaper columnist who makes a good living playing on the fears and prejudices of his readers. Almost all his content is racist, sexist and - particularly - homophobic. He is also extremely smug and obsessed with status. And yeah, he's the protagonist.

    His true motivations are revealed further in and they are complex and, hopefully, quite moving...but its important for the story that he is not likeable. On the other hand, he is supposed to be understandable. My goal with this character is to try to make my reader empathize and root for him despite not wanting to. That's a pretty common dynamic with my characters and I think I know how to write it well...

    My main concern here is making clear how detestable the character is early on without providing such a strong reaction in a reader that they will be unwilling to continue simply because he seems to lack any redeeming qualities. He is neither a good human nor an entertaining monster.

    I have a little experience with this happening. In one of my previous stories my protagonist was a drug addict who made a living scamming vulnerable people to fund his habit. It didn't do as well as I hoped. My failure in that instance, I believe, was not making enough hay on how hopeless his situation was that the audience cared enough about him to forgive the bad things he did.

    The issue in this story is that the character is successful and quite content. There's no obvious reason for him to believe the things he does - the reasons become revealed but they are supposed to be surprising. I have considered the usual playbook stuff on this - hint at a troubled backstory. The problem is that the plot itself is based on a gradual revelation of his back story and motives, so there is very little I can reveal in the opening chapters that I want to give away...

    This got me thinking about the nature of the antihero - a subject that has been discussed often on this forum. When I consider antiheroes that have been part of popular works it seems they are almost always flawed because of their actions and/or circumstances (criminality, drug abuse, mental illness, finding themselves in situations that require immorality, etc) rather than simply because of what they believe. It seems far rarer that an antihero is presented as simply an asshole and the plot revolves around explaining why.

    Thoughts?
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  2. #2
    The history of literature is dotted with true antiheros. Truly bad people who may, or may not, see the error of their ways by the end of the book. Alex in, A Clockwork Orange comes to mind, and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. The trick, I think, is to give your bad-guy protagonist characteristics -- or place him/her in situations -- which your readers can empathize with even while they despise his behavior.
    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence : Simon & Garfunkel


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  3. #3
    Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    My first thought is to make him entertaining. Make him cool, and quick-witted. I'm thinking Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. And then, yes, as Terry says, if you put him in a situation that is worse than he is, readers may empathise. It's a chance, i.m.o, to really examine the issues of why people are racist and homophobic, and what could conceivably be done about that.


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    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
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  4. #4
    Why invent a character when we are awash in powerful, conservative, media moguls that are absolute pond-scum. You really need look no further than the daily news for tales of dirtbags like Moonves or Stone.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by bdcharles View Post
    It's a chance, i.m.o, to really examine the issues of why people are racist and homophobic, and what could conceivably be done about that.

    That's actually the exact reason I came up with this character. When I started writing I always thought there was a good book there to be written to address the background and descent into evil of sexual predators but that has become an increasingly popular subject over the last couple decades. Instead I have increasingly become interested on the psyche of the far-right. I see there as being surprising parallels in upbringing between what makes somebody violently homophobic or racist and a child molester or serial killer.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ralph Rotten View Post
    Why invent a character when we are awash in powerful, conservative, media moguls that are absolute pond-scum. You really need look no further than the daily news for tales of dirtbags like Moonves or Stone.

    Defamation laws?


    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    The history of literature is dotted with true antiheros. Truly bad people who may, or may not, see the error of their ways by the end of the book. Alex in, A Clockwork Orange comes to mind, and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. The trick, I think, is to give your bad-guy protagonist characteristics -- or place him/her in situations -- which your readers can empathize with even while they despise his behavior.
    Hmm, Scarlett O'Hara? It's been years since I read it and I may have conflated her personality in the book with the Vivian Leigh adaption but I never thought of her as being a true antihero? I see her as being more a tragic heroine, somebody who is a victim of their culture, youth and materialistic upbringing rather than somebody with defined personality traits which are antagonistic. Are there crucial scenes in the book I am not remembering?

    Alex in A Clockwork Orange is definitely a pretty terrible human being however, unless I am mis-remembering this too, his "badness" revolves around his predilection for violence (including sexual violence) doesn't it? My character is not violent at all and this is key to his intrigue - I want him to be somebody who hides behind civility to hurt people through manipulation in the vein of the majority of psychopaths. I'm sort of bored of writing about violence.

    I think protagonist characteristics are tough to incorporate without providing some kind of backstory to explain them, which I would like to avoid early on if possible just because the slow unmasking of who this guy really is and what happened to him is the plot. Is that fair or is there another way?

    Otherwise yeah, I think probably situational manipulations are the best way, but even that has its own challenges. I was actually considering an antihero of an unlikely source as a role model - Ebeneezer Scrooge who I consider kind of a prototype for the "heartless far-right-wing" with his selfishness and disregard for compassion. Specifically I was thinking about dropping in a few scenes early on that show the guy's private isolation albeit in a very unsympathetic way - him eating alone, etc. Only reluctance with that is it feels like it has been done to death - the idea of framing a bad guy as a lonely guy isn't exactly original.

    Suppose there is a lot to think about here.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post


    Defamation laws?

    No one said to use their name or likeness. You said you were trying to build evil but legal bad guys, conservative standing guys. We have these exact people on the front page of every newspaper. They seem like a good starting point for your studies. Fact is stranger than fiction, and it makes great inspiration too.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Ralph Rotten View Post
    No one said to use their name or likeness. You said you were trying to build evil but legal bad guys, conservative standing guys. We have these exact people on the front page of every newspaper. They seem like a good starting point for your studies. Fact is stranger than fiction, and it makes great inspiration too.
    Oh okay thanks.

    Seriously though, I think there may be a misunderstanding - I don't have issues with designing the negative points of the character. Anybody can write a knock-off Alex Jones or whatever. My challenge is actually the exact opposite, it's making somebody who has all that same unpleasantness but not so much that they put people off reading.

    Most antiheroes are actually pretty likeable in one way or another. Or maybe charismatic is probably a better word. At the very least they tend to be either sympathetic OR cool. Alex from Clockwork Orange is an absolute bastard but he has positive attributes that make it fairly easy to at least complicate our impression of him - he is confident, well-spoken, etc. Even if we don't like what he does or agree with his motivations, we can at least appreciate the relentless color of his character. Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" is another obvious example of a man with uncertain motives who becomes a protagonist simply through their mannerisms. My character is a middle-aged white guy who writes racist newspaper columns. There's no way to make that cool, and I don't want to make him sympathetic right away.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  8. #8
    Maybe you have not noticed, but Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes were pretty popular in their circles, yet they created a propaganda station disguised as legitimate news. Either of them fits the character you described above. Roger Stone fits that resume as well.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Ralph Rotten View Post
    Maybe you have not noticed, but Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes were pretty popular in their circles, yet they created a propaganda station disguised as legitimate news. Either of them fits the character you described above. Roger Stone fits that resume as well.
    So you think the average fiction reader wants to read a book featuring a persona that is based entirely on Rupert Murdoch?
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  10. #10
    Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    That's actually the exact reason I came up with this character. When I started writing I always thought there was a good book there to be written to address the background and descent into evil of sexual predators but that has become an increasingly popular subject over the last couple decades. Instead I have increasingly become interested on the psyche of the far-right. I see there as being surprising parallels in upbringing between what makes somebody violently homophobic or racist and a child molester or serial killer.
    To me, that's one of the joys of writing. Got an uncomfortable argument that you want to talk about but feel it's too hot-potato? No problem! Let your villain hold that challenging view and they and the protagonist can thrash it out safely in a sandbox environment.


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





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