I’m Damaged. Love Me!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately.

(Muse:  This can only end badly.)

Shush.  I’ve been thinking about damaged and broken protagonists and what makes them appealing to the reader.

Everyone loves the hero:  the knight in shining armor, the Superman, etc.  They embody the best in humanity and are raised up as a shining example of what we should strive for.  But how relatable are they?  Not very, says I; it is very hard to relate to someone who, on the outside, comes off as perfect.  Humans by and large are not perfect, so if the main character is invincible, overly powerful, has no flaws, it can be very hard for the reader to connect with them.

As a personal example, I offer up Richard Rahl in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series (never mind some of the seedier issues in the books).  As the protagonist, Rahl seems unbeatable.  Every woman in the book thinks he is the most handsome man on the planet.  His morals are above reproach.  Everyone finds themselves eventually agreeing with him, even his sworn enemies.  Okay, I get it – author avatar and wish fulfillment, and all that.  But to me, I had a very difficult time connecting with the main character or even worrying about what happened to him.

Now consider Tanis Half-Elven from the Dragonlance series.  His central existence makes him a shattered soul:  born of a sexual assault, wanted by neither the elves nor humans for his “tainted blood,” he is essentially banished from either side of his heritage and bears the psychological scars from that upbringing.  Wow, now there is some damage – and some relatability!  Who has never felt unwanted in their lives?  Outcast, or shut out of the cool-kids club?  Instant connection and the I believe the entire series would have been weakened without that facet of the protagonist’s development.

When I sent Omega Mage out for beta reads, one of my readers told me that they liked the damage in the main character, who is haunted by the loss of his family and is forced into some unsavory habits that he justifies in the effort of finding his son.  We all have self-doubt, we all have regrets, and we all sometimes make excuses for why we are acting the way we do.  In Pilgrimage to Skara, the protagonist has never accepted the betrayal of the woman he loves and her pulling his puppet strings causes him to question himself through the duration of the story.

And as an aside, I think it is more fun for the author to write about damaged character.  If a character can solve any challenge without problems, loss, or even a little introspection, what’s the point?  Too easy.  As writers we should challenge ourselves as well, so trying to work through a broken character’s actions and justifications feels like the right thing to do.

So how do we get there?

First, I would consider the character’s history.  It doesn’t have to be dramatic but we all have trauma in our history that has shaped us.  Maybe it is just a something as simple as falling off a jungle gym and breaking a leg as a kid that makes the character afraid of heights.  Maybe it is something worse.  But mine the backstory for things that can take a character in different directions.

Second, we are all tempted by our baser instincts.  Does the character have an addiction?  Are they lecherous?  Are they enthralled by social media to the detriment of other priorities?  This can be especially effective if it is understated and tweaks the character vice being a story driver, or if in the subtext, the character is actively fighting against their desires.

Third, there is necessity and other actors.  Does the character feel like they are driven to do things by outside forces?  Are they forced to steal to feed a starving family?  Do they live in an environment where it is kill or be killed and they have to murder to survive, even if they don’t like it and are haunted by it?  This again can be a fine line to walk without being over the top but I think it is effective.

In the end, the point is to make the character someone with whom the reader can empathize.  The reader needs to feel themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, understanding their decisions.  This can be done from a place of strength but I believe, instinctively, we tend to recognize each other’s weaknesses just as much, if not more so – and that makes a connection easier and faster.

Anyway, that’s my rambling thoughts for this morning.  As always, feedback is most welcome.

(Note:  Author Laurel Dewey offers a useful perspective here on her blog on how to build broken protagonists.)