Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Writing Hero Protagonists in a World of Damaged Souls


by Jamie Freveletti

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about writing the damaged protagonist, and promised to discuss writing a hero. Writing heroes, especially in the current climate where damaged protagonists are the norm, can be tough. Currently, even protagonists that were initially written as heroes have been altered in later incarnations to be damaged.


For example, in Ludlum’s novel, The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne was actually a good guy working for an undercover CIA operation and charged with finding “Carlos” the international assassin. He spent most of the novel concerned that he may be an assassin, and is relieved to finally learn that he was not.


Fast forward twenty years to the movies starring Matt Damon and the Jason Bourne character is altered to be the assassin, not the hero, and he spends his time learning the horrific truth. The movie goes through quite a few twists to show that Bourne was brainwashed into being the bad player.


Why are damaged protagonists in vogue? As I blogged earlier, I think it’s because the damaged individual gives the writer a built in conflict between the character and the demons he or she faces. In a novel, conflict is king. Without it, you got nothin.’ Additionally, damaged characters can engage in a lot of edgy behavior and the reader will buy it a whole lot quicker than if the character was presented without emotional baggage.


So what does this mean for writing heroes? A lot. It means that you need to present someone as inherently decent who does the right thing in the face of bad actors, and you need to make that courage ring true. People love to root for heroes, but they need to be portrayed as believable as well. This presents a challenge for the writer, because a lot of behavior that might be interesting to write about with regard to the damaged character is off limits to the hero. The hero can't step off the line of good, needs to treat others with respect, and yet still be multi-dimensional enough to keep the readers turning pages.


I write a female hero, and it feels right for me. She doesn't cringe from danger, doesn't wait for the men to save her-she saves the men- and she deals with them on an equal basis. This last bit of information is key when writing a female hero, because she needs to make the final decisions and propel the action forward. If she defers to the men she's not the hero, she's a supporting character.


The better known writers have FBI agents, detectives, cops, ex-Secret Service agents and former military written by Rollins, Baldacci, Grafton and Child. All of these writers get it when it comes to writing heroes. Their protagonists are the kind of people you’d want in your corner or shoulder to shoulder with you in that bar when the guy with the pool cue is aiming at your head. There’s something reassuring about a man or woman character that you can depend on to outwit evil, and who has never felt the need to wallow in it. Perhaps they’re coming back into fashion, or maybe never went out of fashion, but they’re fun to write and even better to read.


I'd love to hear about your favorite hero protagonist-book or movie!


26 comments:

Dana King said...

My favorite category of hero is somewhat underrepresented: he's a relatively undamaged person doing the best he can, and trying not to succumb to the violence/depravity/situation around him. Not a civilian; they lack the plausible tools to overcome these situations.

Favorite who come to mind: Steve Carella of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels; Elvis Cole (damaged, but his demons aren't often near the surface); Sam Spade.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Never read McBain, but I will now. Thanks for the tip!

JDuncan said...

Roland of The Dark Tower fame is one of my favorites. He's continually haunted by things he's had to do in the name of finding the man in black. A very interesting one is from George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice fantasy series, Jamie (can't recall his last name atm). He starts out as an awful, bad guy, but through a series of events and getting the ever-living-crap beat out of him time and again, begins to redeem himself and gradually become heroic. It's a great bit of story telling.

Jamie Freveletti said...

I haven't read either one! (I'm writing notes as I write this to check it out) but the Dark Tower sounds very interesting. I'll google the name of the RR Martin protagonist. Thanks!

Dana King said...

Jamie,
McBain's 87th Precinct stories are said to be the inspiration of HILL STREET BLUES; the continuing cast of cop characters (led by Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, and Fat Ollie Weeks, though Fat Ollie actually works the 8-8) is a measuring stick for others. I'm completely in the tank for McBain's work.

No need to start from the beginning; the newer ones are actually better, as his writing evolved with the times. MONEY, MONEY, MONEY is my favorite; FAT OLLIE'S BOOK (which followed M,M,M) is also excellent. Space prohibits listing all the excellent books in this series.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Ahhh-just saw a rerun of Hill Street Blues on Tvland and have to say the writing was great. I also liked the woman who played the DA. She would make a great Emma Caldridge (my protagonist)-very intelligent portrayal.

I'll get the later McBain then. Guess everything improves with age!

Anonymous said...

I think that damaged heroes are a major tradition in the mystery world - think of Peter Wimsey. Even John Buchan's supermen have old injuries, psychic and physical. It gives them a plausible reason to take on the chaos represented by the crime - they are on a quest to "return" order to the world, even if their own injuries or damage can never be repaired.

Jamie Freveletti said...

I like the idea of a quest to restore order. Well put. Isn't this what most heroes strive for when you think about it? They abhor unfairness, but often apply their own moral code which can be slightly different from that imposed upon them by society.

Anonymous said...

I once drafted an academic paper on the topic but abandoned it when I realized that all of the heroes I was talking about were similarly "damaged" or wounded - I had no good counterexamples in my chosen group of stories. As far as I remember, I decided that it works a bit like the classic movie plot - initial injustice, education, triumphant vindication. The catch with mysteries is that it can be a parallel plot that you only uncover as the series unfolds. The injustice is the event that hurt the hero (often not disclosed until book 2 or 3), the education involves the acquisition of the skills to fight crime ("a monograph on the fat content of milk from different varieties of cows, Watson"), and the vindication is the solution of each problem in the series' stories. The slightly unexpected moral code evolves out of, and makes sense in the context of, the initial injustice.

Thanks for blogging on this fun topic, and for letting me revisit it in your company!

Michael Dymmoch said...

Thomas Magnum in the TV series Magnum PI was portrayed, through most of the show's run, as a slacker clown, but a good guy with strong principles. One episode, however, was shocking because Magnum was faced with the dilemma of killing an unarmed man or allowing him to go free to destroy others. The story had me thinking about it for weeks because it represented a "Catbird Seat"-like departure from everyone's expectations of the character.

It was very effective, and put Magnum's previous behavior under a new light.

David Terrenoire said...

Phillip Marlowe is the guy for me. A close second is Sam Spade. Both have a moral code that may be different from society's, but it's a code they stick to, regardless.

I like that.

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