Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writing Damaged Protagonists

By Jamie Freveletti

It’s no surprise to anyone reading crime fiction these days that the damaged protagonist is quite in vogue. We all write ‘em. The former alcoholic, drug addict, sexual abuse survivor, incest survivor, sex addict, and even former hit man turned medical doctor. We have serial killers as protagonists on television (Dexter) and paid assassins who attend their high school reunion in the movies (the very well done Grosse Pointe Blank).

What makes these protagonists fun to write is that the conflict is obvious from the beginning. The vice detective battling his own sex addiction (Stephen Jay Schwartz’s Boulevard) and the assassin who attends his high school reunion and wants to hook up with his high school love (John Cusack in a great performance as Martin Blank) make for some excellent stories.

They can be humorous, too. My favorite crazy protagonist searching outside of his milieu is the drug dealer turned physics aficionado in the cult book “Cosmic Banditos” by A.C. Weisbecker. This book makes drug cartels seem funny, but underneath the humor you get a real glimpse of the sheer insanity of the players. The description of one of the more nihilistic characters, a guy who was drafted by the NFL but ended up dealing drugs in South America, gives insight into just how nuts the players are, and that the protagonist swims with this crowd without going under is a testament to his ingenuity.

Notice I say “his” ingenuity. This is a deliberate choice, because I haven’t found a female protagonist who can be matched up with the others- at least in the humorous vein. In the male driven stories the damaged protagonist often ends up going “straight.” In the female, it’s not so clear. You have The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wreaking her revenge, but that is one dark story. You also have Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi, but there she ends up turning even darker. I haven’t found a humorous story where the damaged female protagonist turns good and marches off with the man into the sunset. If you know of one, do tell, and I’ll add it to my “to be read” list.

The joy of damaged characters is that, as the writer, you can have them do some seriously sick things and point to the past as motivation. Writing an average guy (or woman) in an average job during an average day is a lot tougher to make interesting. Writers in the cozy genre have this problem in front of them, and I am always impressed with how they deftly manage to create an interesting world out of daily life. As a thriller writer I love the idea of average person in unusual circumstances, but the “average” person in a thriller usually has some specific strength that is a bit above the rest, and the trouble they get into can’t be resolved by the protagonist’s power of deduction in between drinks of tea. Cozys are puzzlers. Thrillers can be, but the protagonist is often in grave danger while solving it.

I don’t write damaged protagonists currently. I write heroes. Female heroes, to be exact. And writing a hero presents a unique challenge. One I’ll blog about later. In the meantime, keep those damaged protagonists coming. I’m always fascinated by the trouble they get into and the vices they overcome.


Dana King said...

I tried--oh, how I tried--to write a series about a PI who was not damaged, but how the events of his cases were damaging him, and how he fought against it. No sale. I walked away from the character and his series for a while, then decided to make one last ditch attempt to sell him, by--you guessed it--making him more damaged.

It's a compromise i can live with if it works, but I'll always like him better as he was.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Yep-damaged protagonists are in vogue-but the day of the decent PI who faces down trouble is coming!

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Jamie!
Thanks for the shout-out!
Stephen Jay Schwartz