Beyond Protagonists

I’m not a big fan of first person POV in storytelling, and many of my favorite stories feature an ensemble cast. This is because the characters I’m most drawn to are fence-sitters. They are not necessarily indecisive, but they do tend to play both sides of a conflict and keep multiple options open for themselves. I always hope they’ll choose the protagonist’s side in the end, but a good storyteller will keep you guessing throughout the tale.

Many writers of the genres and subgenres I prefer reading want to make their protagonists likeable. They’re hero stories. This leaning toward likeable heroes means that sometimes the villain gets the short straw when it comes to character development. Their motives become predictable and flat, often cliché and usually boring. There aren’t a lot of quality fence-sitters in such tales, and that’s probably why I’ve found myself finishing fewer and fewer books over the years.

I consider this lazy fiction. It’s the type I’ll download to my Kindle and read while away at training conferences. It doesn’t take much concentration. It doesn’t stir my emotions to any significant extent. It’s a good distraction for passing away the evening while relaxing in a hotel room after eight hours of presentations and tedium. It’s not memorable, and it’s not something I feel like sharing with friends looking for a good read.

While this type of fiction has its place and its audience, if you want your writing to reach beyond this level of simplicity, I encourage you to spend some quality time with your characters. Don’t fall into the trap of focusing the majority of your energies on your protagonist(s). Develop and listen to the voices of your supporting characters and antagonists. Learn to appreciate that which frustrates you about a character’s personality or actions; a good character should be able to draw out your anger as well as your sympathy and affection. Good storytelling requires more than just putting your protagonist in the middle of a conflict.


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