V is for Villain

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!



Lisa Corn, of “Wired for Story,” is of the (well backed up) opinion that we identify with the protagonist because stories show us how we would survive if the events at hand played out in our lives. She suggests that we should play up the same qualities in protagonists that hold us back in our own lives – resistance to change, a tendency to hold secrets, the desire to get something for nothing. In “Writing the Breakout Novel,” meanwhile, Don Maass reminds us that part of why we read is to identify with people who do the things we cannot or will not do (not entirely a distinct point from Cron’s), and that our protagonist should not be afraid to say that witty comeback or sneak out with their parents’ car.

(I recommend both books, by the way.)

What Maass and Cron are identifying is that our protagonists have the opportunity to hook into the reader’s unknown desires, being both a character to relate to (“I tried to pass World History without studying, too!”) and look up to (“I always wished I could tell off that snooty English teacher, but I never had the guts”). However, what we often do is strip our protagonist down the person we wish we wanted to be.

…let’s unwind that. I’ll bet that what you wish you wanted to do this weekend is a deep clean of your house. You saw that really pretty picture in a magazine, and you’re thinking if you just throw out, you know, most of what you own, and then scrub the floors as they have never been scrubbed before, your house could be as beautiful as that one. After all, you could learn how to make slip-covers, right? And you could paint the walls. If you really wanted to do that, life would be so much easier. Unfortunately, this weekend any number of things will seem more appealing: pretty weather for a walk, that one book or video game, going out with friends, marathoning a show online.

According to Maass and Cron above, the protagonist should be the person who bunks off of work to play the video games, and maybe has some flippant response to their boss about how there may be Serious Consequences to their actions. Perhaps they then grow up a little by the end of the book, becoming the dependable person that can save the family business, but they sure as heck aren’t going to start that way – they’re going to start as someone we can relate to through and through. Unfortunately, many of us make our protagonist into the person who wants to clean their house and have a light salad for dinner. They probably even have matching socks!

Which leads us to a standard problem: the villain is often more relatable than the protagonist. The villain (in this case, not antagonist) goes for what they want, they sneer and make sarcastic remarks, they hold grudges, they embody the emotions we hook into most deeply but aren’t very proud of: fear, thwarted love, anger. Meanwhile, in many cases, the protagonist has just neatly made their bed and is eating a balanced breakfast, after which they will put the dishes away and drive to work in the car they keep clean. We have cleverly engineered things this way because we wanted the protagonist to be someone our readers would like, and instead we are boring them beyond words.

But all is not lost! Say as a child, the only way your protagonist could get a single scrap of attention was by being the perfect child. They want more than anything to bunk off work and spend tomorrow watching TV and eating ice cream (or leave their desk job at the space station and join a band of charming space pirates), but they’re terrified that if they don’t do all the Right Things, they will never be loved. Now we have something: we have the fear of not being loved, an emotion we’re not proud to have but can relate to in spades. And does your protagonist look bad? Not at all.

In fact, think of the protagonist as your friend, not as an expression of who you hope to want to be someday. Your friends are people you watch go about their daily lives, and you are powerless to force them to take your advice on anything. They may get together with that person who treated them horribly, or have a messy apartment, or keep forgetting to take their medicine. You wish they would just get their lives together and do the things they should, so there’s genuine frustration in your relationship, but you love them to pieces, anyway.

Better yet, think of the protagonist as a villain. They don’t have to tie anyone to train tracks, but they’re going to get the wittiest comebacks (even if they’re only in the protagonist’s head), they’re going to resist change mightily, and they’re going to have grudges and wounds in that heart of theirs. Just like your friends. Just like you. Embrace the inner villain, fellow writers!

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