Before I get into the whole write-about-douchebags post, I wanted to mention that the Read for Relief auction went live this morning. Head over there for a chance to bid on ten awesome donations, like a copy of Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me, a critique by HarperTeen editor Erica Sussman, a signed ARC of Leigh Fallon’s Carrier of the Mark, a query critique from agent Jim McCarthy, and more. And that’s just tomorrow. Check back all this week for even more auction items. (Or follow @read4relief on Twitter for updates.)
So, back to your character and why he or she should act like a jerk once in a while. The other day, I was reading a book with a protagonist who let everyone walk all over her. Yes, she was a good person and all. And she was really patient and always thought the best of others, but to be honest, she was also a little dense. The entire time I was reading, I was silently willing her to get up in someone’s face and give them a piece of her mind. Only she never did that.
Here’s the thing: Humans can avoid confrontation. Characters shouldn’t. Not if you want them to appear in an exciting book, that is. Sure, there may be outside conflict—say, if your character’s kidnapped by an evil villain dead set on using her gray matter to power a highly technical weapon that can disintegrate California with the push of a button. And there’s internal conflict—like wondering why the guy who said he had a really amazing time last night is suddenly tickling some other girl’s throat with his tongue.
The difference between a character someone writes about and one that’s constantly waiting for her story to be told is how she reacts to the conflict.
Does she fight, physically? Does she fight with words? Or does she sit back and twiddle her thumbs until a) someone else makes a move, b) the other person realizes his or her wrong, or c) things spontaneously work out?
I’m not just talking about scenes where your character might have to wield a sword and fight the bad guys. I’m talking about scenes with bullies (both young and old) or crazy parents or a best friend who’s suddenly too cool. And so on and so forth. Sure, in real life we might avoid speaking our minds, getting revenge, or putting our wants before friendship or family, but this isn’t real life. So let your character be a jerk.
Let her tell off the guy who cheated on her. Let her steal her best friend’s boyfriend. Let her shave the queen bee’s head or make fun of the super shy but really nice kid.
Yesterday I wrote a scene where my character finally broke. A lot had happened to her, and she finally spoke her mind. (Well, in this case it was more like shouting…) Anyhow, she said what anyone in her position would be thinking. And, you know, it felt good pushing her to that breaking point and then letting her vent. There’s conflict in that, but there’s also conflict in the consequences that follow.
Of course, there are characters whose personalities would never allow them to act in that way. That’s okay. There are limitless ways characters can be jerks, you know.
Maybe your character is shy and quiet, but she leaks reputation-damaging information about the most popular guys in high school online.
Maybe your character would never flirt with a guy to let him know she’s interested, but she does so to break him up with his girlfriend and win a bet.
Maybe your character would never hurt those she loved, but she tells her brother she hates him in order to keep him safe from the invading vampires/zombies/aliens.
Nobody likes reading about protagonists who are complete douchebags. Still, every character’s allowed to have a moment of unfettered douchebaggery to add conflict to the story.
Should every protagonist in every book be a bastard at some point? No. But I think sometimes we fear pushing our characters further, letting them hurt people, especially those they care about. That’s when the story picks up and we start to worry: Will she be forgiven? How will she overcome the humiliation?
Donald Maass once said something to the effect of, “What’s the worst thing your main character does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.”
How can you apply that to your work? And what’s the meanest, most clever way you can think of for a protagonist to hurt a character he or she loves?