What our authors say…
Depending on exactly what the flaw is, the circumstances of the story can be arranged to force the character to confront that flaw head-on in order to progress to the resolution of the primary plot point… or maybe they can’t, and they fail. -Matthew Cox
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This sounded like a fun rant from the list of suggestions, light and easy to do, so up it goes.
1) Make him stubborn, and don’t treat it as a single-edged blessing.
Most often, fantasy protagonists have great faults, and great opportunities for character development. Quick tempers, a tendency to dash madly into danger, a conviction they’re smarter and more special than anyone else around them—they’re all ripe with chances.
Then the author refuses to treat them as faults.
This is a Mistake.
Stubbornness fits under that general list of traits. If the hero is stubborn, it’s usually admirable. He doesn’t give up! She keeps going against all odds! He refuses to yield his beliefs in the face of parental pressure to do so! She stands up to the bully everyone else fears! And so on.
But to make a stubborn hero generally hateful, all you have to do is show the other consequences of that character trait. The inability to keep one’s mouth shut in a dangerous situation, thus making it worse for everyone. The consequences of an angry person who might fear the hero taking out his anger on someone else who’s more defenseless—the “shit rolls downhill” rule. The fact that, y’know, those precious principles could be wrong. The tendency to keep yanking and pulling when one’s leg is in a trap, instead of being willing to lie quiet and see what happens for a while (otherwise known as the course of common sense).
Portray the stubbornness as something other than strictly admirable. I promise you, the flaws will come.
2) Giving him an unusual mindset and making him stick to it.
I will confess (not that it’s much of a confession at this point): when I see an abused character, I am just waiting for my back to go up. Under the general category of “abuse,” I include not only bad home situations and dark pasts, but protagonists who were tortured, who were supposedly trained by twisted mentors, and who have a mental disorder.
Two to one odds—no, that’s not really sporting, four to one odds that the author balks when the heavy work comes and makes the breaking from that unusual or warped mindset too easy and too painless.
The emotional abuse victim isn’t allowed to persist for long in his experience of the world; someone else is sure to come over and busily correct him, and he’ll recover from years of abuse with the barest minimum of psychobabble. The religious fanatic’s beliefs collapse like a house of cards the instant they’re challenged. The supposed sociopath discovers his inner heart the moment she sees a child threatened. The murderer who hates all human life finds he can’t kill a pregnant woman.
Really. Stop it. I understand why you think sticking to the terms of that mindset, giving the character a mental and an emotional world that makes sense to him, and letting him build arguments that strike him as reasonable and a net of logic/”logic” that holds it in place might make the reader dislike and become frustrated with the character. Because it will. If your audience is not emotionally abused and the character is, to the point where he can’t recognize himself as human, then he can and will do things that accord with those beliefs, long after the audience is yelling at him to wake up and become conscious of his own innate worth.
That’s the point.
I happen to think that if someone wants the music of pain, abuse, a highly sheltered upbringing, or whatever, they’ve got to pay the piper, not have the character “heal” the instant he encounters one person who believes differently than he does. But that’s me. And it’s an eminently hateable trait, thus it fits into this rant.
3) Make him a hypocrite.
There is nothing that puts the wind up me like this one. I hate hypocrites in real life, so I find them very easy to dislike as characters.
Again, though, it’s too easy to just make this a flaw that the character recovers from the moment someone calls him on it—flaw-scrubbing—or the crippling fault of a person we’re not supposed to cheer for. Writing a hypocritical hero is different.
Like the hero with an unusual mindset, she’ll need justifications that make sense for her. Why does she give other people advice she never follows? Why is she the living embodiment of not practicing what she preaches? There are many answers that don’t rely on, “There is no reason. Love her/hate her!” or “‘Cause she’s stupid.”
- She has a short memory.
- She’s someone who collects all sorts of neat quotes and admonitions about daily life, but simply never thinks to apply them to herself.
- She’s impulsive, and does many things that violate her own supposed beliefs on a whim.
- She believes she would act true to her principles when the chips are down, but, hey, it’s not a life-and-death situation, what’s the fuss?
- She simply doesn’t reason out long-term consequences. It’s remarkable how many people don’t do this. Thus smoking causing lung cancer, thus the looming environmental crisis, and on and on. People ignoring long-term pain in favor of a short-term pleasure is all over.
You can make her a real person who trails examples of hypocrisy behind her like a small factory puffing out clouds of smoke and makes the reader’s teeth grind. The trick, I think, is not inventing wild justifications—lost memory! curse of a goddess!—for her hypocrisy. In this respect, she’s the opposite of the hero with an unusual mindset. She’s had an ordinary life. It just happens to have turned her into the kind of protagonist who makes your readers want to scream.
4) Make her not a protagonist.
I’m using “protagonist” here in the sense of one who pushes the action. A common reason for short story rejections is that the supposed protagonist of the story does diddley-squat. She just wanders around and talks to people, or her victory is handed to her, or she’s supposedly heroic and intelligent and nice but everything is saved by a deus ex machina at the last moment. She’s too passive.
Now imagine a heroine like that. And no, not someone whom you insist is active while she refuses to take responsibility for herself, which is what happens with far too many reluctant heroes and is the reason I want to strangle them to death when I see them. Someone whom you see with whole, clear eyes that are attentive to her faults and flaws, and really, her major flaw is that she refuses to help herself.
This can get your reader very firmly bonded to secondary characters, if they’re the ones rushing around and going through transformations and pushing the action forward. It would make a good reason to raise a villain in the readers’ estimations, too. Whether it’s a good thing or not, we can be attracted to glittering motion, even if it’s violent. The “protagonist” of your novel, the one who shoves the plot forward, could be the elegant, cool, suave villain. Meanwhile, the protagonist sits in the middle of the shambles of a plot and gapes at everything.
5) Refuse to explain their motivations.
This one works a treat for me. It’s another thing causing me to rant.
The protagonist gazes solemnly at a tree and thinks about how mighty the oak is, how long it’s lived, how its acorns provide a free meal for squirrels ninety-nine times out of a hundred and another oak so rarely. Then she goes and kills her brother. Why? What do you mean, why?!
Now, she probably has a reason. But if the writer never states outright what it is, or hints at it in other than in a “symbolic” scene, it can remain forever mysterious. And that’s a good way to get the reader hating your hero.
It is probably not conducive to helping your plot move forward, or getting people to sympathize with your characters. But hey, you wanted a hateful hero. I think your immediate goals are probably different anyway.
Yes, shorter than usual. Blame the pressures of time and wanting to slap most of the characters in The Woodlanders.