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Writing Prompt #13

August 3, 2010

When trying to work with a complex protagonist, or even an anti-hero, some writers (like this one) fall into the trap of making the character too dark, too unsympathetic. Way too often for my taste, I’ve written a story and gotten back the unanimous critique “I didn’t care for the protag at all.” “Your hero was an a**hole.” “I just didn’t care what happened to him.”

The good thing about unanimous criticism is that if everyone has the same problem with your main character, there’s a good chance it really is a problem. And once you’ve identified the problem, you can always find a solution.

In this case, the solution is to add another layer of complexity, particularly sympathy. This week, your prompt includes two techniques for adding such a layer. Fortunately, they not only work to sweeten up a salty character, but also to add a little tartness to an already saccharine hero.

Opposites Attract
Try this: pick a character you’re developing or have already developed. Summarize the character’s strongest personality trait with a single adjective. Write down the opposite of that adjective. Then write a scene or a paragraph in which your character reveals that opposite trait. In classic terms this could be considered the hero’s “fatal flaw”, the Achilles’ heel that every protagonist has.

But it works for anti-heroes, as well. And by making this “flaw” the opposite of a dominant quality, rather than a random weakness or unrelated characteristic, you’re adding the tension created by paradox. How can two opposing concepts exist in the same person? That’s the juice. We’re all filled with paradox, it’s part of what makes us who we are. One of my favorite quotes is from Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes!”

As an example, think of a successful anti-hero you favor. Perhaps he’s a serial killer who works in forensics tracking down serial killers (Dexter, anyone?). Or maybe she’s a spoiled southern princess who reveals remarkable strength in difficult times (we give a damn, Scarlett). Or a tough mobster with a therapist (how does that make you feel, Tony Soprano?).

The technique works just as well with the good guys. Pick a positive character, just a regular ol’ hero this time, and identify the person’s strongest attribute. Then write a short scene in which he displays just the opposite quality. Your suave, dashing hero only looks smooth on the outside, until he opens his mouth and reveals himself to be an awkward, bumbling, socially inept schmuck.

For a real treat, try this with villains.

Save the Cat, aka Feed the Kitten
In teaching screenwriters, Blake Snyder (who incidentally passed away one year ago) would describe the “save the cat” technique. In brief, give your hero an act of kindness to cultivate sympathy with the audience, particularly one that exacts a toll on the hero. Here are some great examples of saving the cat:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MRY6BP0EpE

While working on a screenplay with a director, I was once advised that my protagonist needed to save the cat in some way (again with the unsympathetic heroes). In this particular case, he meant it literally. We added a stray kitten to the heroine’s apartment complex so she could feed it on the way to class, which of course makes her late and causes a domino effect of grief. So from that moment on, this became known as the “feed the kitten” technique. It sounds cheesy now but it actually worked to help us add some dimension to the character.

Try this: take another look at a scene in which you first introduce your main character. As an experiment, write a new introductory scene in which the character makes some small personal sacrifice on behalf of a total stranger. Bonus points if you can do this as an expository scene which conveys relevant information about the character or setting.

It’s worth noting that the director and I took that kitten out of subsequent drafts of the script. But were able to retain the added complexity. This goes to show you that these and all techniques are just a means to an end. The goal is to experiment and see what opens up, whether you incorporate the exercise or not.

Did you discover something new about your character? Let us know!

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