Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lessons from the Pros: Bad Guy Protagonists

Brady Darby has a smart mouth. He’s sullen and rude and sportin’ for a fight. No small wonder he’ll eventually murder his girlfriend.

Michael Camp will scope out your motel room, your car, your apartment. He'll break in while you're gone, or knock you out if you're there. He'll steal from you anything of value so he can buy his next fix.

Different characters from different books. What do they have in common? They’re the protagonists.

A protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero, he doesn’t even have to be likable, but he does have to be sympathetic. Brady Darby, from Riven by Jerry Jenkins, and Michael Camp, from I Called Him Dancer by Eddie Snipes, are definitely not heroic during the bulk of their stories, but amazingly enough, they are sympathetic.

Although Jenkins and Snipes started their characters’ stories at different points in their lives, they both developed backstories guaranteed to touch the heart. The reader got to watch Brady Darby grow up. We watched him leave his trailer home, where he and his little brother lived with their drunken mother, and go to school where he relished in his tough guy rep. No one dared tease him about being from the “other side of the tracks.” While we watch, he gets into scrapes that take no one by surprise, but he also participates in things that make us root for him. His early life is a series of ups and downs, but the one constant is his deep love for his brother.

When Darby finds a girl to love, the readers hope for a turnaround. But he makes awful decisions, has awful luck--and a loaded weapon he didn’t really intend to use. By the time he commits murder, the readers aren’t surprised, only disappointed.

Snipes opens Michael’s story at his worst point–living on the streets in New York, washing car windows at red lights in hopes for a dollar or two. That’s how his high school dance partner finds him.

Michael’s mother abandoned him at the home of a relative who didn’t want him either. He did eventually land with a family who cared enough for him to allow him to chase his dream of becoming a professional dancer. The reader roots for him all the way from after-school dance classes to the elite Pahl School of Dance, all the while seeing the abuse he has to overcome doled out by high school bullies. But because of the way Snipes opened the story--in the tale's "present time," the question throughout the backstory is: How did Michael become a street bum?

After all the lectures about dumping backstory into your novel, we see stories like these, where backstory is vital to making bad boys sympathetic. The reader has to care about these characters or they won’t read far enough to see what happens to them. Just telling the reader that the protagonists had a rough life doesn't cut it. The reader needs to see hopes and dreams dashed and see a feasible progression from the character's history to the character's current state.

But we also have to see the protagonist doing things that would reinforce our sympathy. Darby protects his brother, Michael protects his dance partner. Because of these actions, the reader continues to hope for redemption, and continues reading until his hope is fulfilled.

Writing bad boy protagonists is trickier than it sounds. The risk of losing your reader because he hates the character is present all through the novel. You must obtain and retain sympathy, or no one will care about the story. Develop and present a backstory that will earn sympathy, and show events that will provide the reader with hope, and you'll have him hooked all the way though.
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  1. Great article and what a unique and interesting perspective. I've read both of these books (one being mine, of course). Thanks for sharing a great perspective on writing and using bad boy protagonist as a glimpse into story writing. Wonderful article!

  2. Great post! I love complicated "bad boy" characters, but it can be tricky to get readers to sympathize with them when those characters' actions are anything but sympathetic. Seeing how the pros do it is always educative.

  3. Eddie--I'm glad you liked the article. I really enjoyed your book!

    Katie--I like complicated characters, too, and they are harder to write than one would think.

  4. Great post and good advice. I love reading stories about complicated characters and admire authors that are successful with these stories.