Don’t characterize my characters…just yet.

Good plot. Immersing detail. Popular genre.  Quick tempo. All the trappings of a worthy read…right? While these qualities in a book might draw you in, and keep you there for a spell, nothing, in my humble view, detaches the reader quicker than hollow characters. I’ve read the reviews (not on mine thankfully…yet). “Cardboard, one-dimensional, flat, undeveloped, unrealistic…” The list goes on.

Unrealistic?   Now this description captures my attention the most, because it reminds me of something Stephen King said about writing good stories. I am paraphrasing at my worst, but he said something to the effect that an interesting story pits normal people against extraordinary circumstances, not extraordinary people against normal situations. Realism defined? I don’t know, but I like reading stories about characters that have to struggle to overcome an extraordinary problem. Is James Bond one of these characters? At first you’d probably say “no way!” I might agree, but I’d argue that he is an extraordinary person pitted against insanely extraordinary circumstances. It’s the same formula, just presented in a higher octane fashion, which is why it works…more so in the recent Bond films.

Ever read a book where the protagonist is an unstoppable, unbeatable hero? Mentally or physically? It’s fun for a while, but falls flat very quickly, because ultimately, there is no real drama. You know the protagonist will come out on top. It might be fun getting there, but on some level I get bored…really quickly. If the protagonist’s success is in question, or he/she takes a beating along the way…even though I still suspect, or know it’ll turn out alright, I’m pulled along.

Another aspect of a realistic protagonist is their moral stance. I think a little moral complexity is critical for a realistic character. We don’t all help old ladies cross the street…sometimes we’re in a hurry and don’t want to stand two more places back at Starbucks. Sorry. Moral complexity can vary across the spectrum, which can become confusing, so traditionally, we think of categorization in terms of good vs. evil, or some form of this. It’s a simple recipe for conflict, which usually drives a story along.

In my first novel, The Jakarta Pandemic, the moral ambiguity was a little hazy. The structural “good guys vs. bad guys” dichotomy was fairly simple to process, and I’ve received little feedback to suggest otherwise. However, since the book’s release, I still eagerly wait to hear from the camp of people who think that Alex Fletcher was a terrible person, and could not associate with them at all. I built a subtle stage for this into the story (maybe not so subtle), and so far, nobody has walked up onto it for a solid rant against them.

My next story won’t be so easy for most of you. Although most of you will like the protagonist from the start, and turn the last page with the same sentiment intact (mostly)…the ride may leave you with an uneasy feeling. You might find yourself not so eagerly clinking champagne glasses with this character, as you sail away into the sunset.

What kind of protagonist keeps you reading a story?  What kind makes you toss the book aside?


  1. Jon says:

    To answer the question I guess it all depends on the storyline. Take Thomas Harris books for instance. While most would argue that Clarice is the protagonist others could make the claim it is Hannibal Lecter. In Harris’ later books one would without a doubt say it is Hannibal alone being the protagonist. Either way, the story is what captures most people IMO.

    Back to the Fletcher’s in your book, I would have to point out that there surely are people out there that are going to see the Fletcher’s as bad people. They just haven’t read your book yet or if they have they are too pissed off to comment. All kidding aside, Alex is the kind of character I see as how most people (people I know) would act in the circumstances they are faced with in TJP.

    A few good authors come to mind who use the same protagonist in their series of books and pull it off masterfully. Lee Child and Vince Flynn being just two of these. Are you planning on using Alex again or going with a new character? Either way, keeping with your style is what’s important and if one had to judge on your past book, you will make the right choice.

    Now quit writing blog posts and post the first chapter already 😉

    • Steven Konkoly says:

      I’m writing it as we all type. Hannibal Lecter is a fantastic example of a character so interesting and dominating, that he steals the show from the protagonist…even in Red Dragon. As for Alex Fletcher, I haven’t decided to retire him permanently, but it will probably be a while before he surfaces. After the tsunami disaster in Japan, I started thinking about what might happen to coastal Maine, if a similar tidal wave struck, and the Fletchers still lived a few miles from the ocean. He certainly wouldn’t have the option of staying in his house, though I’m pretty sure he’d be prepared…at the very least he’d throw his trusty AR-15 in the car with his family. Who needs supplies when you have an assault rifle?…Now that’s a bad joke for everyone. The new protagonist is forged by a very different experience, one that has left him with little of his former self, save for a sense of humor. That’s one link between characters I don’t think I’ll ever abandon. The ability to laugh under the worst circumstances. Thanks, Jon.

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