We bandy around the phrase ‘strong female protagonist’ (SFP for short) quite a bit. Now, this phrase has a lot of meaning to it and is often taken at literal face value, focusing on physical prowess (literal physical strength in one way or the other) instead of the truer, broader meaning. This isn’t necessarily bad, not at all as long as it is handled well (though I prefer the deeper interpretation of strength myself). I bring this thought of physical strength up, though, because it lets us talk about a pair of character tropes closely connected to that and the overall ‘SFP’ discussion: the Action Girl and the Faux Action Girl.
Writing Is A Bad Habit: Super Troperiffic Sterrotype GO! a.k.a. Embracing the Archetypical
Tropes are bad. Archetypes are hackneyed. Stereotypes are horrible.
Except when tropes are great, archetypes resonate with our souls, and stereotypes have that hard kernel of truth.
Writing Is A Bad Habit: Hard Hats and Sledgehammers a.k.a. Deconstruction and Reconstruction
Genres, tropes, and archetypes form the building blocks of fiction, something that’s very hard, if impossible, to dispute. We use these things as guidelines and molds because that resonate with our culture, our history, and our life experiences. However, that doesn’t mean these things are perfect. Often they are far from it. Couple that with the march of progress and the changes our culture undergoes at a progressively faster speed, you can be left with a sense that these tried-and-true story bricks can crumble with age. There are some things you can do about that though, namely deconstruction and reconstruction.
Looking at Character: Everyone Can Be A Hero!
I wanted to step away from some of the more politically and emotionally charged articles and reblogs I’ve been doing lately, vital as they are, to touch on some lighter writing topics. With that in mind, in today’s Looking at Character, we are going to examine the ups and downs of a favorite character archetype: the Everyman Hero. Few kinds of protagonists can score higher in the reader relatability department than the Everyman, because at the heart of it, he/she is a normal citizen, just like most of us.
That very fact makes the Everyman Hero both easy and hard to write for. Obviously, most authors know very much what it is like to be an everyday person so there are fewer chances to make mistakes at the base character level. You know what a normal person is capable of, you have an idea of just how varied their background and personality can be, and you have a good idea of how they might react when faced with unusual situations. It sounds like an ease to add to your story.
The thing is, all of those things can also lead to complications. Especially if your story deals with fantastic elements, you may have difficulty coming up with realistic reasons for the Everyman Hero to be involved in the larger plot or to justify his/her ability to not to participate in the plot, but to even survive it. This can tie into the overall need for character agency in our protagonists and the possibility of the Everyman Hero to mutate into the Load, something that can be very jarring when said of a major protagonist. It could also lead to issues of straining the suspension of disbelief (‘How did that toll booth worker fight off two werewolves with a roll of silver dollars? She should be torn to pieces!’) when you have the Everyman Hero triumph in situations that would stymie even an archetypical action hero.
These aren’t impossible problems to overcome. The most obvious means to deal with this is to make the Everyman status a beginning point and allow the protagonist to progress along and grow as strange things happen around them, getting by first by luck and talent and eventually becoming something greater than how he/she started. A more subtle approach is to simply remain thoughtful and open-minded as you approach strange situations involving the character. Everyman doesn’t mean dumb and everyman doesn’t mean incompetent. All it means is the character is relatively ‘normal’. Human beings are capable of some pretty impressive feats, so an Everyman Hero can do the same things when needed.
However you want to work it in, the Everyman Hero can be an excellent character type to use in a variety of situations, most especially if you need a highly relatable character to provide your readers a viewpoint into an otherwise arcane or complicated setting or plot.
If you have any suggestions, ideas, or critiques, feel free to put them in the comments below!
Looking at Character: Punchclock Villains a.k.a It’s Just a Job, Nothing Personal
I thought it was time once again to get back to Looking at Character and correct a deficiency in these articles so far: lack of antagonist analysis. We’ve talked about heroes of various permutations, but not one look at the other side of the conflict fence. For today, then, I decided to bring up one of the most relatable villain archetypes, the Punchclock Villain.
For the Punchclock Villain, whatever morally questionable actions they perform are just part of their job. They aren’t into crime, murder, theft, smuggling, or whatever other activities they do for personal reasons, political motivation, or mental imbalance … the Punchclock Villain is just collecting a paycheck. Outside of work, even inside it, the Villain might be polite, professional, and seemingly a decent sort, but that won’t usually prevent him/her from completing the dirty deeds that his/her job requires.
It’s this basic dichotomy of ‘decent person’ vs. ‘villainous scum’ that makes the Punchclock Villain both refreshing and relatable as an antagonist (or even a protagonist, depending on the tale). After all, we all have to work to make our livings and often we are forced to take jobs we don’t want to make ends meet. We may even find we have a real talent for a line of work in which we absolutely hate. Still, we swallow our pride and do what we must to keep a rough over our families’ heads and food in the pantry.
The Punchclock Villain takes those normal, natural actions and feelings and simply pushes them a bit further for the sake of drama. Instead of making some small compromises to make ends meet, the Villain makes more substantial ones, but their motivations and actions still remain understandable. The reader may even be able to sympathize to the point where he/she questions what to do if he/she were in the Villain’s place. This can especially be driven home if the author includes situations where the Villain has to make increasingly harder choices and compromises as the conflicts in the novel escalate.
What can make a Punchclock Villain dramatically interesting, beyond the potential for interesting internal conflicts as I mentioned above, is the ability to contrast them versus more traditional types of villains. The Punchclock Villain isn’t necessarily traditionally ‘evil’ or ‘crazy’ or the like; he/she has as much in common with the protagonists as with a archetypical megalomaniac supervillain. That uniqueness can make for a whole new web of drama and plot points, spurred on as much by the Villain’s similarities to the protagonists as their conflicts. It’s certainly a time-tested set-up to have a traditional ‘evil’ master villain with a Punchclock Villain serving as his/her second-in-command, letting the author explore the relationships and dramatic impact of both traditional ‘hero vs. villain’ conflicts, but the more nuanced ones between all three parties.
The potential stumbling block, of course, is balancing the sympathetic points of the Punchclock Villain versus the conflicts with the protagonist. If you make the Villain too sympathetic and too ‘good’, you begin to stretch the suspension of disbelief of the reader. If this guy/gal is so morally good, how can he/she continue to make such drastic compromises? Likewise, if you make them too unsympathetic, you begin to loose the differentiation between the Punchclock Villain and a more traditional antagonist, leading to a loss of the dramatic tension you introduced that kind of villain to produce in the first place.
Have you ever used such a character in your writing? Did you find them an interesting element to add to shake up the usual conflicts in a piece? Do you have any advice, questions, or criticisms? Put it in the comments below!
Looking at Character: The Invincible Hero
As an author who writes superhero books, I have a long-held love of the comic book medium. I’ve been reading them since I was a little kid and still keep up with them in various formats. The other day, I came across a discussion of what people thought were the rights and wrongs of the latest Superman movie and what it boiled down to, in essence, was a talk about the difficulties of writing an interesting story for so powerful of a character. I came away from that forum mulling it over myself and decided to take the musings here to my blog. It’s time for another round of Looking at Character with today’s guest, the Invincible Hero.
At first blush, the Invincible Hero looks a lot like our other friend, the Ace, but there are some vital differences. Like the Ace, the Invincible Hero is the best of the best, a seemingly unstoppable force. Nothing seems to slow him down and even the rare setback is fleeting and temporary. However, unlike the Ace, who is a supporting character and used in various ways to interact with the protagonists, the Invincible Hero *is* the protagonist. Hercules, Achilles, Superman, Hulk Hogan … all of those characters in their prime certainly fit the bill. So the question remains: How do you write an effective plot about a protagonist that, by definition, easily overcomes any direct conflict?
There are a few ways to go about it. The first one is to go about deconstructing the myth of the Invincible Hero. In a deconstruction-based story, the conflict is generally not the obvious external one, but conflicts generated by the flaws and foibles that are hidden behind the shining facade of the Hero. Concepts such as alienation from the rest of humanity, hubris from his/her invincibility, loosing touch with one’s humanity, the burden of the expectations of the masses (realistic or not), and so on can be explored to shine light on the realistic problems of being put above the rest of the Hero’s peers and relations. In such a way, the Invincible Hero becomes relatable; though his problems may still be on a different scale, they are simply larger versions of issues everyone faces, allowing the reader to connect to him/her.
Another way to spark conflict and plot is the approach of ‘the bigger fish’. Yes, the Invincible Hero is unstoppable compared to his usual opposition, but that doesn’t preclude an even more awesome threat from existing, thus creating a new conflict where the normally triumphant Hero is faced with the prospect of being the underdog. As with straight deconstruction, this makes the Invincible Hero relatable by injecting all-too human feelings such as fear and a sense of inadequacy into the equation. The potential stumbling block, though, is the possible temptation to inject these feelings then quickly have them ‘overcome’. This is usually meant by the author as a show of the Hero’s true courage or what-not but it usually comes off as just another problem the Invincible Hero can shrug off, unlike the reader, causing an even larger rift in relatability.
The last way that came to mind to give an Invincible Hero a good story is to approach the primary conflict in a way that is outside of the Hero’s element. However unstoppable the Hero may be, there are undoubtedly areas and problems where his/her particular set of abilities and skills are not useful. Making the conflict revolve around some problem that cannot simply be directly confronted once more brings the Hero down to the human level, allowing the writer to showcase and develop the Hero’s character as he/she struggles with a problem instead of running it over as per the norm. Another facet of this that could be fascinating to explore is the Hero’s social and familial life. Again, it’s a source of conflicts, vital ones, that build character but cannot simply be approached by kicking down doors and beating up bad guys.
It’s not hard to see that all of these approaches revolve around finding ways to interject a strong dose of relatability into the Invincible Hero. As characterization is usually the heart of a good story, that ability to relate to the protagonist is vital. If we have no way to connect, we usually cease to care about the character in a short period of time and no amount of finely crafted action or well-rendered description will fix that.
What do you think? Have you ever had to write an Invincible Hero? If so, how did you tackle their relatability? Comment below!
Looking At Character: The Ace
For this week’s Looking At Character article, let’s do the exact opposite of our previous topic, which, if you recall, was the Load, a helpless but essential character. That opposite is the Ace: the flawless, best of the best character that everyone looks up to and pales in comparison. Most often the Ace is used as a mentor figure or something with which to compare other character’s relative ineffectiveness or lack of moral character to. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Aces often don’t make it through the stories they are featured in, often killed, eliminated, or otherwise marginalized or humbled before the major climax. With those bare-bone basics laid out, what is the story and characterization value of the Ace?
As mentioned above, often the Ace is position as a mentor figure for the protagonists, someone so amazingly good at what they do that they offer a logical path to let the other characters reach those same lofty heights. Similarly, they may not be so much a direct mentor but a role model, someone other characters in the piece look up to and model themselves on. Either way, this version of the Ace is used mostly as a characterization device as opposed to a plot motivator: his/her direct instruction or the ideal he/she represents shapes the development of the protagonists and how those characters progress down that road can reveal truths about their character.
Juxtapose the ‘Ace-as-mentor/role model’ concept against this idea: using the Ace as a foil for the protagonists. The Ace often is shown to be almost unrealistically good at what he does or to be a sterling tower of morality, whether this is actually true or simply a public image. Such an impossible standard may just not be something the protagonists can achieve and thus they (or other characters) may compare themselves to the Ace and find themselves wanting. Perhaps, in cases where the Ace’s legend doesn’t match the truth, this comparison and the eventual discovery of the truth can lead to some very humanizing moments for both the protagonists and the formerly untarnished Ace as one realizes they, in fact, are good enough and the other gets brought back down to humanity.
Used as a plot device, the Ace’s main purpose to actuate a plot point is, most often, to die or to otherwise be taken out of the action. Most often, this is, story-wise, done to allow the protagonists to step forward and take the Ace’s place. Also, the Ace can be used to provide breathing room in a story, if there is some threat or conflict that the Ace’s presence keeps at bay but begs to be fleshed out before the climax. The protagonists and the reader can be exposed to this conflict in a controlled manner, enough to be well-informed but always safe with the Ace’s presence. At the appropriate dramatic time, the Ace is removed from the equation in some fashion and the full tension of the conflict can be realized, leading to an appropriate climax for the story.
One may wonder why the Ace, being depicted as nearly-flawless, isn’t often used as the main character. In many ways, the Ace is what many protagonists end up as at the conclusion of their story arcs, especially in heroic fantasy and superhero tales, so why not use the Ace is a more direct fashion? The reason is made clear by the mention of story arcs. The Ace has no arc or, to be honest, had her/his arc already. There is no heroic journey; the Ace is already at the pinnacle. With no arc to explore and few flaws to provide drama, the Ace has no personal story that is worth telling on her/his own merits. In that way, the Ace often represents the hero’s goal, that ultimate pinnacle to rise to, but are almost never the actual hero of the story.
Is there some character archetype or some particular brand of characterization you want me to ramble about? Anything to add to the musings above? Drop a line in the comments!
Looking at Character: The Load
Looking at Character is going to be the first of several semi-regular categories of my starved authorial ramblings and is going to concentrate on various character tropes and archetypes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, looking at the pitfalls and uses of each. As with all my musings, the thoughts and ideas shown here are purely based on my own experiences and ideas. Take them as the opinions they are and feel free to dispute them. Disagreement is the basis of discussion, after all.
The first subject of this feature is the ‘Load’. Named quite literally, the Load is a helpless character (at least in comparison to the conflicts of the majority of the story or to the main characters) who, despite this, not only is deeply involved with the story but is essential to either the main characters or to the solution of the conflict of the piece. The Load is a vital person, but is a burden on the main characters. The Load generates plot points not through their action, but their helplessness, sometimes tied into a nature as a MacGuffin. Often, the Load develops as a character over the course of the piece, proving their worth and rising to the situation, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes they just remain a burden on everyone around them. Common examples include some portrayals of children, the ‘bumbling sidekick’ from superhero lore, or the ‘person of prophecy’ who has some vital purpose but has no actual power as is seen in some fantasy works.
I think it’s important to note that what makes the Load a load is often how the author writes a character. For instance, take two fantasy stories with a ‘person of prophecy’, like I mentioned above. In both pieces, the character has no unusual abilities outside of their importance to the prophecy compared to the other protagonists. However, this person is only the Load in the first story, where all he/she is capable of in danger is hiding, freezing, and crying. Outside of danger, he/she is equally a burden, showing no appreciable skills at all. In the second story, simple characterization turns the Load into something else: he/she had been a farmer before picked by prophecy, let’s say, and, while not helpful in a fight, their knowledge of the land and homegrown common sense prove an important balance for the group. One is a Load, the other is something else.
Does this mean that the Load is always a bad thing? Well, no. Not always. There are some characters that would, realistically, be a Load in most situations. Take a protagonist who has an infant child and is forced to bring he/she with them on their adventure. The infant can’t fend for themselves and must be constantly protected from danger. He/she may be the Load, but can still provide valuable characterization. A Load can provide an interesting foil in a story, provided they are well characterized and dealt with realistically, which often means, at times, they may not be a total burden on the protagonists.
The Load can become an annoyance to readers, however, when dealt with unrealistically. If the author continually creates contrived situations to keep the Load around or to keep the Load useless, the reader’s patience will wear thin quickly. Even worse, an author may make a mistake of combining a Load, poor characterization, and common racial, ethnic, social, or gender stereotypes to form a truly insulting character, one that makes the reader just put it down in disgust. Remember, as an author, everything you write makes a statement about yourself and creating a ‘lazy, useless ethnic sidekick’ to add to your story makes very unfortunate implications about your character. Don’t do it!
I think the best way to handle a Load is to take a nuanced approach, something I will often say about any character trope or archetype. These archetypes come to the fore because they hold certain truths about human nature and resonate with readers. If you use any of them too strongly without a gentle touch and fleshed-out personalities, however, you will bludgeon your readers so excessively you overwhelm that subtle resonance and break their suspension of disbelief.
What do you think about including a Load in a piece of fiction? What other good or bad points might there be to their use as a story element? Is it possible that the Load is an artifact of a more blunt and stereotypical writing style and doesn’t have a place in more nuanced modern literature? Let me know in the comments!
Morality and Motivation: Balancing ethical choices and realistic motivations
I write in fictional genres that classically lend themselves to a very old school ‘black vs. white’ mentality. The truth is, though, that is boring and unrealistic. It’s not that I don’t see morality and ethics as realistic, it is simply that the human mind doesn’t usually work in absolutes. Even people we would consider to be saintly are not pure white in motivation and action and even the most vicious murderer is often found to have strangely positive points in their personality. The human psyche is far too complex for such absolute moral stances.
In fact, it could be argued that the best conflicts in any piece, no matter how action-packed, comes from the inner turmoil of a good person faced with decisions with no clear positive outcome. The classic ‘choosing the lesser of two evils’ situation can not only make for great drama, but tell more about a character’s mental state and moral compass than pages of ‘telling’ and pontificating. The key, I would say, is to make sure such choice points themselves are not contrived or unrealistic. If it all happens in the flow of the story, it will make for a dramatic and defining character moment.
At the end of the day, it’s the oft-repeated advice to make every hero have flaws and to make every villain have positive points. I think the truth is a bit more nuanced though. I think it could be valid to have a character that truly is so evil as to be irredeemable, but there must be a process to make a person that way. That process has to come out, and in that process you can make a, for instance, heartless serial killer with no good qualities be shown to have once had them. To show how that morality was purged by a spiraling series of no-win choices, the influence of other darker figures, and/or the occasional whim of fate could also be a fascinating addition to the story. Much like you can show a protagonist’s rise through dramatic struggle, you can show the moral fall of an antagonist in the same way.
Maybe what I’m ultimately pontificating about is the simple act of not making characters faceless cutouts representing the archetype you need to fulfill your plot. Archetypes aren’t by their nature bad; in fact, they represent vital tools in the writer’s bag. It is the blank archetypes that can weaken an otherwise fantastic tale until it crumbles, unable to be supported by a base of cardboard cutouts. Remember, for most types of stories, the characters create and support the plot, not the other way around.