Tag Archives: writing

Sympathetic vs. Interesting Protagonist

In the latest feedback episode of the Cybrosis podcast novel an email I sent sparked a conversation about writing your protagonist as sympathetic vs. interesting and the challenges therein.

In my own writing I tend to try and make my main characters likable (or at least sympathetic/understandable). I’m not necessarily looking to make someone who you’d want to go out and have a drink with, but I want them to at least have something appealing about them. If you can’t like them then you should at least be able to say “I can see how they got there”. I want you to want to know them better or at least care about them and what they’re going through.

When they were talking about characters that are more interesting than likable/sympathetic, they seem to fall into talking about the ones that you love to hate/hate to love. I find Cyris, P.C.’s protagonist, to fall more into this category. While not the most interesting character in the story, she is interesting and that does save her and the story. It sounds like he’ll be transitioning her into a more sympathetic character as the novel progresses. That will be a nice trick if he can pull it off. I say that, not because I doubt P.C.’s skill, but because making that change without losing who you’ve built her to be in the course of one novel would seem to be quite the challenge.

So, sympathetic or not, your main character has to be interesting. As I said, I want my protagonists to be both interesting and sympathetic and I think that’s what most writers are really shooting for and what most audiences want to see. On the other hand, writing/watching anti-heroes or real shady characters can be a lot of fun. But if you go that route, the more unlikable they are the more interesting they have to be to strike a balance.

Some examples of unlikable, but interesting protags from my tweet stream are Grendel, Thomas Covenant (yes!), Sandman, Perry Dawsey (yes and yes!), Tony Soprano, Dexter, Francis Urqhart, Cal Mcaffrey. Looking at that list, the ones I’m familiar with, definitely show that to take the real chumps/rotten apples and maintain your audience’s interest in them you definitely need to make them interesting. I recently wrote a short story for Great Hites and I’m not sure which camp Bogdan falls into. (Maybe you can give it a read and tell me?) I don’t really like him or what he stands for, but I can at least see why he is what he is and feel sorry for him. My hope is that that tension makes him interesting even if you hate him.

So what’s your experience here? Can you think of some (un)sympathetic protags that weren’t interesting enough to save them? How could they have been improved?

Mystery in Horror

I had a thought strike me yesterday (no it didn’t hurt, but it is very lonely and soooo, soooo cold). To whit, the thing that makes horror really scary is mystery.

The minute we fully understand that which is scary, it ceases to be as scary. Typically when there’s a big reveal in a horror novel or a movie all the scary evaporates and it becomes a thriller or an action adventure (or sometimes just plain silly). For example, I give you vampires. It’s really difficult to make them scary because now we “know” all of their weakness. Once the protagonists know that there are vampires they just break out the stakes and boom.

Now you could argue that you can still make a story scary by keeping the protagonists ignorant. If they don’t know about or don’t believe in bogey monsters then they can’t fight them as effectively. That can indeed help, but only a bit. We, the audience still know and that can neuter the story.

Another example, this one from the movies. Pick your modern horror icons: Jason, Freddy, Michael. What makes them scary at least in large part is, we don’t know what they are or how to put them down. They’re unstoppable forces, until… someone figures out their weakness or what precisely they are.

Now that’s not to say you can’t make these things scary or at least interesting. The thing is, I’m not so sure I’m talented enough to do that yet. It’s okay, most storytellers in the horror genre aren’t either. For the most part they just do what’s become popular and throw a lot of gore at it and hope it sticks. Some of them are gutsy enough to try and re-invent the critter. Rob Zombie’s given that a number of shots. I won’t opine on how successful he’s been since I haven’t seen most of them, but that is one option.

The better thing? Create something new, out of whole cloth. Don’t give away all (or any) of your creation’s secrets. maintain that aura of mystery. ‘Cause once you’ve shown it all, it’s just “Speed” in a haunted house


I just got a rather nice compliment from JadedDave who can also be found at The Jen and Dave Show. He said:

“I think you handled the exchange between believers and non-believers very well.”

That was regarding my podcast novel Archangel and the dialog that takes place in episode sixteen. It made me feel all warm and junk. But seriously, I know that in a lot of Christian fiction there are issues when you get a believer and non-believer in the same room. It seems like many authors have never heard a non-believer speak before. It actually happens in the opposite direction too, when you get someone who isn’t a Christian trying to write “Christian-y” dialog. It really all gets back to making it all “natural” and that’s true regardless of who’s talking.

For me dialog has always been something I struggled with/fretted over. Just keeping it real enough to pass without making it so stilted or awkward (as real life conversations can be) as to make it unreadable/unlistenable is a tough balance to strike. I feel that podcasting has really helped that since by reading it out loud I hear how it sounds. I also find myself really listening to conversations around me and sort of mentally recording the rhythms and word choices. Doing this without looking like a stalker/eavesdropper is hard but it’s worth whatever risk there is. It should be noted that I put the word natural in quotes up there because I don’t think any writer can (and perhaps no writer should even if they could) make any dialog truly natural.

Another thing I struggle with, that’s been brought to my attention, is my choice of figures of speech. I’ve been in the rural south most of my life and I’m certain this comes out in much of what I write. If I were just writing stories that take place in that setting this might not be such a big deal. As it is, I’m not. So it’s just one more thing to keep a weather eye out there for.

What helps your dialog writing? What do you struggle with?

The Western

Jared Axelrod has been dropping story germs over here as an extension of Mur Lafferty’s News From Poughkeepsie project. His latest category tackles the Western genre. He has this to say:

I don’t watch a whole lot of television, but I don’t dare miss an episode of PROJECT RUNWAY. As an examination of the creative process and an intriguing character study of the kind of people who chose to make creation their life, it’s hard to beat. Plus, you get fashion shows and the idiosyncratic charm of Tim Gunn. It’s hard not to like such a program.

But I was watching last weeks episode and I almost punched the screen. The contestants were challenged to come up with an outfit based on a cinematic genre, and nobody wanted “Westerns.” In fact, not only did no one want Westerns, but there was serious Western bad-mouthing through most of the episode.

I just about lost it. What is wrong with Westerns, I ask? What?

Not a damn thing, that’s what.

I happen to agree. It’s one of my favorite movie genres and I tackled it in a sci-fi direction for my first NaNoWriMo. I think the two genres taste great together because they are both most often about people living on the frontier of different sorts. It’s about how that difficult life shapes them, changes them. Sometimes it’s a change for the better and sometimes not. It’s also about looking at the kinds of people that move out to the edges and why they do it. Everything from Little House on the Prairie to Firefly/Serenity to some very enjoyable podcasts (Solar Clipper and Tumbler) fall under the genre.

It wouldn’t break my heart to see Westerns replace or join Steampunk and Zombie in the hearts of geeks everywhere. Heck even mash them up together. They’re certainly compatible. So I’m going to try and do at least a couple of his prompts this week. One of them may even turn into a NaNo thing. We’ll see.