Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tortured protagonists

I shouldn't make those promises. Something always comes up and stops me. Anyway, here's another wordy and barely coherent... er... treatise on the art of writing. :P

First: a confession. I'm a sucker for tortured protagonists. The more personal demons they have to grapple with, the better. The hero of my first novel, Finn, was one of those tortured, brooding types. Even now, in my historical trilogy, there are two main characters who seem to have arrived in Britain with more emotional baggage than any other sort: Marcus from book one, and Aurelia from book two, and these two are going to be my main case studies for this post.

I think I like the tortured protagonist because I enjoy watching them having to overcome these mental obstacles before they can get down to the business of saving the world/fighting the Romans/whatever. Protagonists might get burdened with these demons as the story progresses - for example, Luke Skywalker finds out that Darth Vader is his father in The Empire Strikes Back, which gives him something to struggle with for the rest of that film and Return of the Jedi. Other authors, and this is something which seems to be occurring more and more frequently in modern fiction, will introduce a character who is already burdened with prior angst. It's a fairly effective way to produce a main character who's more mysterious and compelling than ordinary John Doe living an ordinary life in an ordinary suburb.

The main pitfall with the pre-afflicted protagonist, however, is that it can slow the story down. Personally, I've got a fair tolerance for this, but I think I'm probably in a minority. So often an author gets so busy establishing that yes, this character is troubled, that they bog the beginning (or even the whole) of the book in angst. I did the same thing in the old fantasy series. The protagonist, Finn, liked to brood. And I do mean brood. Almost every page of that book was choked with his italicised emo thoughts. And that is the common problem, when the author overdoes it in their attempt to engage the reader's curiosity and keep them on tenterhooks. This results in laborious, undefined angst that more often than not tests the reader's patience, especially if the angst is pretty clich├ęd and they can see where the hints are pointing a mile away. So, how to deal with this?

One obvious solution is to explain the reason for the angst from the get-go. I did this in the fantasy book, with a prologue which showed the event which so affected Finn, so from chapter one, the reader was able to understand why he was so tormented and brooding. Considering the amount of time he brooded over it, I think this was probably the best approach, as the reader could understand just why he thought and acted the way he did. This approach is also probably a good one if the reason for a character's angsting is fairly predictable. It's an approach I'm trying with Aurelia, for example. In the first few chapters it's hinted that she's scared of men, especially in terms of strength and sexuality. Not terribly hard to work out what's happened there, I don't think, so I can get it out in the open quite early on. In Aurelia's case it seems to be working okay: it's an easy way for the reader to sympathise with her (though more on this later), and by understanding what form her demon takes, they can better appreciate her courage when she enters the decidedly macho-male environment of the Wall; not only that, but takes it in her stride. It also allows her other secrets and "issues" (for want of a less contemporary term), all linked to her ordeal, to be unravelled gradually.

But let's assume you want to keep all your cards to your chest, and keep the reader guessing all the way up to the Big Revelation, as I do with Marcus. Well, first, it's probably best to have angst that isn't immediately obvious, so you can drop subtle hints here and keep the reader guessing. The key word here, of course, is "subtle". If the angst is too obvious, or the hints are too heavy-handed, then that might result in skipping on the reader's part, or, in the worst-case scenario, wall-hitting.

The best way, I've found, is to break up the angst, or keep it to a minimum. It was harder with Finn, since brooding was very much a part of his character, but with Marcus and Aurelia, it's somewhat easier. Although they're both troubled, they're also looking ahead to their new lives, Marcus to the honour of helping to conquer the rest of Britain, Aurelia to use her tribune husband's tenure abroad as a way to find her footing again and clear the air of scandal that surrounded her in Rome. (Or more accurately, perhaps, now that they've run all the way to the very edge of the world, there's no choice but to turn round and face their demons face-on.) Wallowing in self-pity isn't very Roman, after all, so both they, as well as I, are very determined not to brood. Focusing more on the fact that they're both looking forward and wanting to overcome their personal demons is probably a more effective way to garner reader sympathy, and (hopefully) lend their setbacks and lapses more emotional impact, especially when the stakes raise and it becomes vital for them to overcome their demons in order for them to fulfil their roles in the story.

The second way is to have things happen. Angst can make for good drama; Shakespeare managed to turn Hamlet's angst into one of the greatest dramas of all time, after all. But I'm not Shakespeare, and I'm prepared to bet that you aren't, either. A good novel needs a balance of angst and action. I'm proud to realise with hindsight that this was something I got right with Finn: no matter how much of his spare time he might have spent brooding in the corner, he was also the first one to take up his trusty sword when there were baddies to dispatch. The same applies to every protagonist, I think: there's a time and a place for brooding over whatever's gnawing away at your soul, and a time for action. Marcus knows he has to put his angst on hold while he's fighting the Caledonians, and Aurelia knows that hers can wait till she's solved the mystery of her husband's disappearance.

Another way is simply to introduce some humour to lighten up the situation. Marcus and Aurelia both have their senses of humour intact, to varying degrees, no matter how scarred they may be, and I think this is true to life. Marcus, for instance, retains a fairly dry, self-deprecating brand of humour, and Aurelia can still make the odd quip when the occasion calls for it. Character-wise, it adds another dimension to them, acting sometimes as a ward against the angst, and narrative-wise, it breaks down the chunks of angst into easily digestible, bite-sized pieces. ;)

Another point is that the angst shouldn't be arbitrary, and though it can lend itself to reader sympathy, that's not the main reason it should be there. I've read too many books where the author seemed to think that simply assigning their MC a tragic past and thus making the reader go, "Aaaw, poor baby" that was somehow all they needed to do to maintain the reader's sympathy. Well, a dark and mysterious backstory might be good for engaging initial interest, but there's no substitute for strong characterisation. If a main character does have an angsty/unhappy/dark past, it should be pertinent to the story and the character, should affect their perceptions, both of themselves and everything/everyone else out there, and it should act as any external conflict does: to test the character to their limit and show their strength. This is something I've come to see more and more with Aurelia and Marcus. Their problems all serve to affect their relationships with other characters, their perceptions of themselves, and provide an internal obstacle for them to surmount before they can realise their true strength. Angsty pasts and personal demons are fine with me, but I'd personally rather read about a character who has the strength to overcome those demons in order to do what they have to: rather than a character I pity, I'd rather have a character I can respect.


Griever said...

Your last line stuck with me. Thanks.

Kirsten Campbell said...

You're welcome, Griever. :)

Griever said...

"embrace your dreams and... whatever happens always protect your honour"