Writing Is A Bad Habit In The World Of … : ‘Strong’ Protagonists! It’s More Than Coolness, Yo!

So demands for planing for Mobicon, work for editing clients, and other shenanigans, I regretfully inform you that I won’t have a Starving Review served up today.

However, I present as a substitute some extended thoughts on the ‘strong’ protagonist, male or female, and how to create and think about your creations, alongside examples culled from my own writing.  An extension of this Wednesday’s Writing Is A Bad Habit, the audio log takes things deeper than before.

If you enjoy this, please let me know so I can plan to do more of these podcast-style articles in the future!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: No Bad Guy, No Problem a.k.a. Eschewing Traditional Antagonists

Stories thrive on conflict.  There’s conflict at the core of any novel, whether it’s immediately apparent on not.  Naturally, with the structure of conflict, we expect to find a protagonist and an antagonist, the typical dichotomy of opposing forces.  However, haven’t we all read stories and novels that we enjoy where there is no obvious antagonist, no dark lord, no cruel mastermind?  How can we explain the success of these tales if conflict is the core of a good tale?


Plot and Motivation: How To Lose When Winning! a.k.a. Building Tension for Heroes

Wow.  Between the constant demands of being a Starving Author AND a Starving Reviewer, I’ve had so little time to just … write an article.  Well, I throw off the shackles of responsibility and, despite the fact I really should read my next book/write a review/write a chapter/edit a chapter/promote a book/do my laundry (pick your favorite three!), I am going to instead write a new chapter in Plot and Motivation!

In the past, we’ve talked about such tropes as the Invincible Hero and the Ace, archetypes that are, usually, invincible in traditional physical conflict.  Now, this is all fine, there are usually other approaches to add dramatic tension outside of the realm of action and direct combat and such.  However, what if you’re writing in the action genre OR a genre that relies on action/competition/conflict as the core plot element?  Well, again, easy answer, don’t use such overpowering archetypes or find a way to deconstruct the tropes.

AH-HA!  We’re not done yet!

What if you don’t have a choice about the character for some reason?  Or what if the constraints of the plot demand victory for the heroes?  For example, in a fantasy world, many conflicts could very well be life or death.  Defeat isn’t an option.  Or in a sports novel if there is a tournament the protagonists must win for the plot but there isn’t a losers bracket by the rules of the game?  There are situations where you can’t let the protagonists lose but you’re afraid of steering too far off the realm of believability into breaking your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Well, the first and simplest solution is to simply make every conflict a challenge.  Heroes that don’t lose don’t have to be Invincible.  If you can capture the struggle, the risk, the difficulty of every encounter, you can still harness the dramatic tension needed to entice the reader but still not throw your plot off-line with strange explanations as to why things differ This One Time.  If you set rules or a tone for your world, it is important to keep with it.  Easier to make things very hard than to provide conspicuously out-of-place reasons.

A second closely related solution is to ensure every victory has a cost.  With some scenarios, this is simple.  Anything involving direct physical struggle or potentially dangerous situations is easy: injuries and wounds don’t magically disappear and even the best fighter is not untouchable.  In any physical activity, even non-contact sports, injuries can happen and fatigue can be a crucial factor.  Having to perform at one’s peak day after day in a hard physical activity is impossible, eventually wear and tear sets in.  Frankly, any extended effort, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, is taxing and should be presented as so.  In team situations, with multiple protagonists, the cost may be in lost teammates or defeated allies.  Even material costs are possible with tools, money, equipment, and ammunition as all things that can go away to make each step a bit more challenging.

A third idea, last on my short list, is to break the rules.  Yes, I know I said that it is important to keep world rules in place but, even in our own hard-set reality, exceptions and unforeseen events happen and rules we consider iron-clad by Mother Nature sometimes seem to be meaningless.  If you DO feel the need to take this route, it is important to point out that fact, that what just happened defied all expectations/laws of nature/rules of magic/etc., and then try to ensure it doesn’t happen again!  Rare once-in-a-lifetime events happen.  It becomes trite when that once-in-a-lifetime event happens twice.

While this kind of situation might seem rare, in some genres it comes up more than others.  Having to struggle with it myself in my latest writings, I had to think long and hard about it so I felt it fitting to share with others out there who may wind up dealing with the same issues in their own works.

If you have any comments or input, feel free to let me know!  Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: It Takes More Than a White Hat – The Heel/Face Turn

Hey folks!  Yes, it’s been a few days and I’m usually stickler for daily posts but the Muse has struck hard for the finale of Incorruptible.  Still, I have broken away from writing and taking care of myself to get a new edition of Looking at Character out for you loyal readers.  In today’s article, we’re going to look at something that comes up from time to time in writing, especially when writing dynamic characters in a piece, and that is the Heel/Face Turn (or it’s evil twin, the Face/Heel Turn).  To explain, the terminology comes from the professional wrestling world, where ‘Heels’ are villains and ‘Faces’ are the heroes.  A ‘turn’ can then be inferred, correctly, as a change in status.  The Turn is when a protagonist becomes an antagonist or an antagonist becomes a protagonist.

The thing that is vital about wanting to incorporate such a shift in a major or minor character is to remember to properly characterize such a big shift in a character’s motivation and (often) morality.  In all things, the characterization that you provide as the writer is king.  Sure, you can make a character’s attitudes flip like a coin with no explanation, but you risk breaking (say it with me, everyone) suspension of disbelief when you do so.  Once you lose that, well, you lose the war and you lose the reader.

So, with that in mind, how can you make a villain a hero realistically?  Well, it’s easier than you might think.  If you’ve already been trying to create fully realized characters with relatable personalities, you probably have all the tools you need.  However they act, be it antagonist or protagonist, you’ve given them motivation and reasons to do so.  All it often takes is for that motivation or reason to be altered or to change in the course of the story.  It might be even easier, depending on those motivations, if all it takes is for some important fact to come to light to alter the perceptions of the character in question.

Let’s take a very basic case.  The noble bandit (like a Robin Hood type) is the protagonist and one of his antagonists is the chief of police.  His/her motivation for opposing the bandit is his/her dedication to the law.  Simple.  What if the noble bandit is fighting a hidden corruption by being an outlaw?  Again, pretty classic Robin Hood.  If, in the course of the tale, the chief of police is opened to the corruption hiding in the midst of things, you could logically write a Heel/Face Turn for him/her, drawing on the motivation of dedication to the law causing him/her to join forces with the noble bandit to clean out the corruption.

Basically, it’s as a simple as going ‘Does this make sense in regards to the character, their motivations, and the actions depicted in the story?’.  If the answer is yes, go with it.  If the answer is no, you need to drop the idea or look at why it doesn’t work to fix the story elements to continue with the Turn.  That question, by the way, is probably the best litmus test to use for many decisions about what to do with characters in general.

So, if you want good guys to be bad guys or bad guys to grab a white hat, make sure you have relatable fleshed-out characters so that their choices are understandable, then make sure to properly show the process and the choices that the character makes for their Turn.  I hope that helped and, until next time, good luck and good writing!

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: 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!