By Bonnie Stanard
For some time I thought that a sympathetic protagonist meant only likeable ones. And the advice I got from interviews with literary agents reinforced this misconception. However, I’ve come to realize that bad guys can make for good books. I’m not talking about picaresque rogues of high adventure and rascally wit such as Fielding’s Tom Jones or Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Let’s think about serious books such as Executioner’s Song; Palace Walk; Perfume; and Clockwork Orange.
It’s easier to write sympathetic, likeable POV characters and, given that they populate best-selling books, it’s obvious we enjoy reading about them. But there’s a place for bad guys, though they present a challenge to the writer.
How can you make a wrong-headed person sympathetic? Or at least engage the reader and hold his interest. Evil is interesting in the mainstream, as long as it’s embodied as the antagonist or foil to our hero. What does it take to put the antagonist in the spotlight? How can we arouse a reader’s passion for a sinner? Capable writers such as Norman Mailer, Naguib Mahfouz, Patrick Suskind, and Anthony Burgess have proved we can.
I’ve just finished reading A Place for Outlaws by Allen Weir, which ends with a murder committed by the main character, Cole, who is in love with a married woman. She convinces him that her jealous husband is dangerous, though there’s no evidence of this. Cole sneaks into the husband’s house with a .38 caliber pistol, presumably to shoot the husband though he isn’t at home. For a 40 year-old, divorced man, Cole displays a disconcerting lack of moral grounding despite a stable upbringing and loving parents. He doesn’t act very smart for a college professor, his given profession. If he were younger, I could believe he sees the world through a prism of hormones and is thereby so infatuated he loses his senses. In the end, it’s not the husband he kills but his mother’s lover in what seems a sudden attack of an Oedipus complex. So why do I question the character of Cole? What could make him more believable? Here are some ideas.
1. A background with more clues to his dark side2. Rational behavior, even if it’s murder3. A connection between POV thought and act4. Boldness, even if in wrong-doing5. Justifiable motives6. A conscience, whether honest or deluded
I worried about the character of the male protagonist of my novel Master of Westfall Plantation because he’s not a good guy. Would the reader become absorbed in his adventures when it’s obvious he’s a cruel, demanding slave owner? In this case, the protagonist believes he is a good person. He is blinded to the harm he brings on his family and associates because he is the product of a destructive culture.
The Heart of the Matter
A successful evil protagonist is credible. He acts based on what he believes. Moral norms are distorted. A happy childhood is not a good starting point. Drugs can only explain so much. He can be creative about being destructive. At that, he has moments when he’s good.