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.
Linda Apple is the author of Writing From Your Soul, Writing Life ~ Your Stories Matter, Connect ~ A Simple Guide to Public Speaking for Writers, POW; Promises Kept and Women Of Washington Avenue, her debut novel and the first book in her Moonlight Mississippi series. Her personal experience stories have been published in 16 of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Her devotions have been published in numerous devotion magazines and books. She lives in Fayetteville Arkansas with her husband, Neal, their five children, five children-in-love, and ten grandchildren.
Jody Bailey Day writes inspirational fiction from west Texas. Her debut novel, Washout Express, released June 2013 from Harbourlight Books. Her short stories, poems, devotionals, and articles have appeared in Mature Living, Splickety Magazine, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Southern Writers Magazine, and Christiandevotions.us, She is a two time Grand Prize Winner at the East Texas Christian Writers Conference, and a Faithwriters.com Best of the Best award winner. She and her pastor husband have six grown children and nine grandchildren.
Deborah Dee Harper writes from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, by way of Michigan, Kentucky, Alaska, Mississippi, and Alaska (again). Deb is a graduate of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild classes and writes Christian humorous and inspirational books for both children and adults. Her children’s adventure series, Laramie on the Lam, available in both e-book and print, is being re-published as six individual print books. Her Road’s End series (Misstep, Faux Pas, and Misjudge) for adults is also contracted and should be published soon. She is currently nearing completion on the first book of another series. She is represented by Terry Burns of Hartline Literary Agency.
Lisa Lickel is an award-winning multi-published inspirational novelist, blogger, reviewer, and writing mentor. A freelance editor, Lisa loves all things historical. Her work has appeared in Writer's Digest and Christian Fiction Online.
Liberty Speidel has been a voracious reader since reading her first Nancy Drew book. But she was telling stories long before then with her figurines from Disney's Rescue Rangers. When she's not writing, you may find her gardening, baking, crocheting, or hiking. A lifelong Kansan, she now resides in the Kansas City metro area with her husband, children, and chocolate Labrador, where she could rival Captain Jean Luc Picard in consumption of Earl Grey tea. She is the author of Emergence, Retaliation, and Capitulation, novellas and novels in her series featuring superhuman and police detective Darby Shaw.
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he earned a PhD in English literature (Renaissance) and for eighteen years taught literature at two liberal arts colleges. His poetry has appeared in leading journals and is collected in his book Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond.His fiction includes a light-hearted mystery, Rhapsody in Red, and two suspense novels, Deadly Addictive and The Lazarus File, and a historical romance, Lightning on a Quiet Night. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ groups and conferences. He lives near Houston, TX, where he continues to write fiction and poetry, as well as essays on writing, ethical issues, and U.S. foreign policy.
Editor/Author Linda Yezak lives with her husband in a forest in east Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She is a speaker/lecturer for various writers' groups and conferences. Her fiction books include Give the Lady a Ride, The Final Ride, and The Cat Lady's Secret. Her nonfiction books include Writing in Obedience, co-written with retired Hartline Literary agent Terry Burns. "Slider," her historical short-story, won Honorable Mention in The Saturday Evening Post's Great American Fiction contest and is published in their 2016 Anthology.
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