The protagonist must have a sense of moral value, whatever that moral is. However, I get bored when my main character’s values don’t change over time or fail to fluctuate and become scrutinized – at least temporarily. I like it when the protagonist is measured by a different set of standards, too – at least temporarily. And who doesn’t appreciate an antagonist who may not be as antagonistic as the protagonist would like you to believe? Tricky devil… Not easy to create these characters and their scenes, but it’s certainly fun work and intellectually stimulating.
Still, I realized recently that many of my protagonists seem to come out more flawed than the antagonists, and not in some great potent way as agonists are often measured, but in a sort of anti-efficacy assessment: failures over time. Did I do this on purpose? Lots of failures over time? Honestly, no. Can a protagonist not end his story as a hero, or end not much better off than the start of the story, or not be changed by Eureka! epiphanies? Possibly, yes, and only if the conflicts are interesting and the character’s flaws stay, well true to characterization. And did I mention the conflicts had to be interesting?
Conflict makes story, I know. However, conflict is not the same as ‘conflict’. I prefer my protagonist to struggle with the world inside his faltering, miserable head. Internal conflict is the best device that I have in my writer’s laboratory. I’d rather write scenes with situations that force my hero to question his love or identity, to doubt his judgment, to almost drown in self-doubt. These, as opposed to writing scenes my hero has created, grabbing my keyboard and typing out his own situations that show off his outer strength, his brilliance, his deductive powers, his triumphant good vs. evil pivotal moments. Pow! Zoom! I’ll-be-back… I guess I’m not a fan of superheroes, comic books, or Schwarzenegger movies. Don’t hate.
I am comfortable with a protagonist not reaching his potential as long as he tries damn hard to get there and struggles to maintain a sense of self, no matter what he must react to. Perfection is not real. No need for a cape and a black facemask (or golden lasso and bullet-deflecting bracelets – not all my protagonists are guys, despite the gender used in this post!). If the protagonist boils from within, then I think I have an interesting story to share.
I am happy to have written a moderately flawed protagonist in my World War II story (of which the first chapter I just submitted to the writing group). I have written about Gauthier in previous posts. He is a young man, but thinks beyond his years; ah, if only in small bursts. He is as much aware of his surroundings in Nazi German as he is hopeless oblivious inside his art du jour. He is a good man, and I love him. But, wow; can he be any more lost? What makes Gauthier interesting to me is his often flawed logic, his often imperfect responses and reactions to incredible circumstances and in the most vivid scenes that I can place him in. He succumbs to internal doubts and to a loss of identity, acts (or doesn’t act) on his fear, finds solace in his ever-changing interpretations on what love is and who the hell he is. In the next couple of months as I submit Gauthier’s chapters, I will find out if Gauthier’s imperfect responses to inner and outer conflicts actually create good story.
The piece below was once a poem. Trust me; it’s better off as prose! It has traveled with me from one hard drive to another over years of laptop dances. It’s about a middle-aged man who has had an internal crisis and now struggles to do something that he has always taken for granted: come home to his family, or what’s left of it. When characterizing Gauthier, I thought of this old writing: Regret. Failure. Fear. That chill that follows bad decisions...
He searched the glass for the evidence of life, observing in headlights only the trunks of pines, an evergreen holly, and a flashing glance that made the birdfeeder swing. Cresting the boulevard, the house leaned exhausted, half-asleep under porch lights dimmed yellow.
He released the door and the exhaust wisped into the vacuum. Against the truck, the man offset his burden and held his breath until he, too, lost the heat to the night in threadlike frost; scarce breaths released, this man who leans.
He stared at bricks, avoided the door. He’d rather invade magenta brick, soak into the mortar, climb to the attic, make like a haunt. Cold. Stale. Attic. Old. He’d wrapped over the bones up there, like flesh; wrap over the old rafters and unravel and wrap up the old beams. He’d slide down the space between the walls. He’d stretch out to feel for vibrations, for voices, for breaths, for sighs, for cries: transcending waves of warm laughter.
A home sleeps, in state. A partner who beds abandoned; two dogs that sleep tangled. Past midnight, this return from bleeding streets is much too late. Empty vessel with wheels? No drive left.
No signs but that of the barely. The spirit pulls from the wall. A hand is told to unlock the door, and the thing will pull the door open. A man is told to enter, and the thing will step onto the wood floor. Heat from a whistling vent warms.
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