Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 18)

This entry is part 18 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Dark Protagonists

Have you ever told someone:

This is the best thing I have ever written.

I have too and almost always that piece of work is absolute trash. Generally, it’s something I’ve written while in a foul mood. I’m sure you know exactly the kind of mood I mean. It usually starts with the dull ache of self-loathing. It expands, sometimes quite dramatically, into a full blow rage that threatens to consumer vast quantities of liquor and calories, swelling your body mass and stretching the limits of your wardrobe.

But maybe you have other vices.

Anyway, as Maass relates, works that come with the preface of best-thing-I-have-written are often terrible.

I have to admit that when I hear that phrase my heart sinks and too often with good reason. The manuscript in question stands a good chance of being about characters who are dark, tortured, haunted (always by “demons”), angry, depressed, cynical or in some other way unbearable. When I just as inevitably point out this drawback, the response is usually, “But I like my characters flawed! That is what makes them interesting!”

I long to say, “You mean, theraputic?” But I bite my tongue.

Ugh. That was a painful thing to read. I can point to half a dozen stories off the top of my head that have characters who fit the bill. Most of them are just the kind of “my masterpiece” garbage that Maass describes. I look back on their rotting carcasses with shame.

If your characters fit this scheme, it doesn’t mean you have a hopeless case. What you need to do is deal with that darkness. The character has to recognize their problem and seek to change the situation. This is how you draw the reader in and make them root for your tragic hero as he (or she) seeks to become, well, untragic or at a minimum sympathetic.

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