Writing a Protagonist You Can’t Stand (Also, why any sane person trying to have a career would even entertain such an obviously idiotic idea.)
As a writer, I enjoy creating characters who are practical and “in charge” of their lives. Not necessarily alpha heroes or bossy bitches—although, yeah—but characters who aren’t content with sitting around waiting for someone else to come along and make things happen for them. Regardless of their status in society, they accept what cannot be changed and set about changing what they find unacceptable tout de suite.
I can relate to that. That’s my personality.
But the problem a writer runs into when only writing “safe” characters to whom they can relate—or even like—is that their characters, and their stories, can get repetitive over time. As a romance writer, it’s easy enough to get pigeon-holed by the general public once they hear the word “romance,” but once you’ve been stereotyped by your readership—both those who love your work and otherwise—it can become even more difficult to reach new eyes.
And why bother writing the same book over and over? What a waste of time, for both the reader and the author.
Okay. So. Which character did I write that I couldn’t stand, you might be wondering?
I can’t believe you even have to ask. Don’t you know me at all? 🙂
The heroine of the first book in the Foxe Sisters Trilogy, Never Kiss a Stranger: Ugh. The youngest Foxe sister was impulsive, immature (at first), selfish, idealistic, stubborn and blonde.
And guess what? Some of you couldn’t stand her either, for exactly the same reasons. If you’re one of them, that tells me three things:
- You’re not likely the baby of your family.
- We’d probably get along really well in real life.
- I did my job as a writer.
Because, even though some readers wanted to strangle Alys Foxe (some said spank, but I’m not judging), many, many more loved her. To them, Alys was spunky, compassionate, determined, resourceful and hilarious.
And, most importantly of all, the heroic Piers Mallory loved Alys. Piers’s character couldn’t have fallen so completely in love with any other woman—he loved her, impulsive silliness and all. For him, Alys sparkled.
Now, why would any sane person trying to have a career entertain such an idea? Why should you entertain the idea?
Writing a character outside your personal comfort zone will grow your writing, deepen your stories, like nothing else because you learn to observe and report from a different POINT OF VIEW! Deeeeeep point of view! In Never Kiss a Stranger, I had to see Alys through Piers’s eyes.
Zero risk of becoming stale when you have to crawl inside a character to look at another character from their vantage point. It’s like research, learning about this different creature. (“What’s it like in your funny little brain? It must be so boring.” Sorry, I really miss Sherlock.)
Okay, let’s wrap up with:
How can you authentically write a protagonist not of your “type” without adding personal influence?
It all goes back to point of view, really. Which is my favorite writing topic and one I definitely plan to come back to in a future post. But for today, here are some quick exercises you can do—on paper or just in your head—with a character you’re trying to create or one you’re already struggling to love in the Getting to Know You category:
- Turn the tables. Write a short scene—it can be related to the WIP or not—in which the character is encountering something or someone you DO love and know well. How would they handle it? For instance, I love big, lumbering, 100+lb furniture-wrecking beasts of dogs. If I was writing a character that did not love such domicile-destroying creatures, the canine characteristics so dear to me would become points of conflict and sympathy to observe and build upon in my character. I could no longer mock them because I was looking at the situation from their eyes. Once I did this with Alys, I realized I had to set aside my practical opinion (shared with her eldest sister, ahem) about her security and future to look at the marriage arranged for her with the eyes of the always safe and carefree youngest child, who enjoyed the freedom of doing everything with intense passion. A-ha….
- What does their mother know that you don’t? When you see that spoiled, screaming, snotty toddler in aisle 14, maybe her mum sees the child who—two weeks ago—was in the hospital for a life threatening infection and is still easily fatigued by a simple errand. Those screams might be music to her mothers’ ears, and spoil her she will—gladly. Make some notes about how the character’s mother would describe them, and you might be surprised at what you uncover. I had to look at the Foxe Sisters’ births and childhood—still largely mysterious to the reader in Book 1—to really understand why Alys behaved and thought as she did. Trying to write her character to have more practicality or caution would have been completely ridiculous and unbelievable.
- How could characteristics you find undesirable be perceived as strengths? Everything—everything—has pros and cons. Is your character too (to you) forgiving? Instead of simply rolling your eyes at their “gullible” tendencies, think of how that trait could potentially help them. What people or situations would find that characteristic admirable—or even demand it? Alys was exceptionally fearless—a quality that is vital in a very young woman who is forced to stand up to her king to save the life of the man she loves.
So that’s how and why I wrote Alys Foxe, a heroine that I (at first, at least) couldn’t stand. But you know what? She did grow on me as I got to know her, and she ended up being the perfect fuel to set off the Foxe Sisters trilogy.
Do you like reading and writing out of your comfort zone? Why or why not? What authors surprise you with every book? Drop me a line and let me know!