Storyville: How Grateful, Compassionate Protagonists Can Add Depth to Your Fiction
I hear a lot of talk these days about unlikable protagonists, and how a despicable main character can be hard to read. I get that. So does that mean the opposite is true? If you have a grateful, compassionate, giving protagonist, does that make for a more appealing, layered, and satisfying experience?
As we get closer to Thanksgiving, let’s discuss that.
Over the years in this column, I’ve talked about how you must get us to care about your protagonist as soon (and often) as is possible. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean LIKE your protagonist, but you must FEEL something—love or hate, sympathy or anger, compassion or vengeance. But what about your protagonist? What do THEY need to feel?
When my students screw up a story, when it’s not working, what’s usually going wrong? Sometimes they start the story in the wrong place, not with the inciting incident, but some random spot that doesn’t serve the heart of the story. They usually get the external conflict right—that’s the BIG story—the asteroid crashing to earth, vampires in the lemon groves, a virus sweeping the land. Many don’t have resolutions—nothing changes, and so we remain at the same spot we started, a stagnant story. But the biggest culprit is usually the internal conflict—the emotions and motivations of your protagonist.
Let’s go deeper.
When dissecting short stories—or any story, really—you’d be surprised at how many internal conflicts have to do with wanting to be loved, or some variation on that theme: being seen, being valued, being respected. And in order for a person to get those things, maybe they need to give them as well.
When rooting for a character, we want to see them as worthy of our time, our respect, our energy. If you have a character that is compassionate, kind to others, grateful for what they have, and hopeful for the future, that’s a nice set of traits that’s pretty easy to like. I mean, after all, that’s what we surround ourselves with in the real world, right? We want a mother who is sweet and generous, a father who is supportive and open-minded, a sibling that respects us and asks for advice (or gives it), a spouse that thinks we’re special. So it makes sense that the things we seek in our relationships we also look for in our protagonists.
And what does that do to the protagonist, by showing them to be this way? A couple of things:
- It creates a space of honesty, where we see what kind of person they are. We trust that they will do the right thing when the baby is sick, the dog is hurt, the homeless man asks for help, the neighbor falls down. We see that their actions match their heart, their exterior fits their emotions and character.
- It also can lead to a vulnerability. They say nice guys finish last for a reason. We know they won’t rush to call the police for a minor transgression, but instead will step in to try to help, even if they put themselves in harm’s way. They can be taken advantage of by manipulative people. They can open themselves up to evil forces that might want to abuse somebody that seems like an easy victim.
- Or it can lead to them being a hero—Superman or Leon the Professional or Rango.
When we look at the conflicts that are built into your stories, we are looking for reversals, for that change, that resolution. If your protagonist is compassionate, then we know they are going to jump on the bandwagon, they are going to lend a helping hand, they are going to offer up supplies, help tend the wounded, and lead others away from danger. That’s a pretty easy person to root for. It’s Rick Grimes, it’s Captain America, it’s Dumbledore, and it’s T’Challa.
Don’t confuse kindness, compassion, and gratitude with weakness. It can be a door to vulnerability, but it doesn’t mean their code, their rules, their moral compass makes them soft. It just adds layers of emotions, pause to their major decisions, and a concern for the consequences—whether it’s people going hungry, a villain escaping to protect the innocent, a student being expelled, or a loss of resources. They will weigh their decisions based on long-, medium-, and short-term goals. They will look at the cause and effect, and choose wisely.
Most of the time.
How you then subvert those moments, those expectations, that’s how you surprise your readership—a drunk Superman unsettling, the death of one for the good of the many, what seems like a harsh ruling in the moment something that later turns out to be the right decision, a hired killer protecting an innocent, even if it means his own life.
If you’ve taken my Contemporary Dark Fiction class, think about the main characters in those books:
- Look at the complexity of Malorie in Bird Box, and how she chooses to raise those two kids, the tough choices she makes, always afraid that she may be a horrible mother and human being. And we aren’t sure about her either, what would be abuse in the real world, a necessity in hers. Where would we draw the line? And how did the book end, how did that all shake out?
- Look at the biologist in Annihilation. For a long time she is quite distant, digesting Area X as only a biologist can—in a cold, calculated, scientific manner. Even when things go horribly wrong. In time, we see that she does have a heart, she does care about certain people, even if it’s too late, that emotion and revelation leading to us caring more about her, rooting for her. She’s heading up the river, and she’s not coming home.
- In Come Closer we see how Amanda has cracks in her armor, allowing something dark to come in, questioning her choice in Ed, looking to the events of her childhood, as this horror story turns into a bit of a gothic romance. All she ever wanted was to be loved. And that comes true, right? Just not in the way we might have thought.
- And Perdido Street Station? Well, I can’t speak to Yagharek, that ending something that pushes many people’s buttons, but I wonder if things might have turned out differently for Issaac and Lin, if they weren’t so compassionate? What might that have looked like if Isaac was more ruthless, if Lin hadn’t looked over her shoulder, if the visit of a female garuda didn’t cause us to ask so many questions?
If a dark, violent, unlikable, unreliable protagonist is hard to root for, know that at least they are a character you can root against. Sometimes that’s a fun journey—watching the bigot get their justice, waiting for the rapist to get their violent ending, seeing it all get burnt to the ground with that monster in the center of it. That can be quite satisfying. And on the opposite end, we can also find fulfillment in a happy ending as well—the monster killed, the heroes alive, the village safe, the kindness leading to survival. There is Requiem for a Dream and there is Spring, there is The Mist and there is Hereditary, there is The Shining and there is The Road. A compassionate protagonist doesn’t mean a weak character or a flat ending—it can be bleak, or it can be hopeful. It all depends on what you do with that inner conflict, how you use love, and hope, to craft an original story. Good luck!
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