No more Heroes and no more Villains

Following on from my previous post, Trying something Different, it seems logical to look at other aspects of writing a different kind of novel. The technicalities of subverting expectations within a story do not rest entirely on moving the constituent parts around. The linear path from beginning to middle to end is very well signposted and, it occurs to me, this very familiarity reduces the tension of scenes that are intended to be dramatic and engaging. This is because you know that the protagonist is going to get to the end, it is just a question of how? The reader might not be consciously aware of this element when they are in the process of actually reading, but I believe it to be true. I was recently watching a television show in which the main protagonist was in a life and death situation and appeared to be losing. The story jumped to a sub-plot, a common technique of drawing out the tension, but it also provided the answer to the question how? I have seen this technique employed so many times now, both in books and on screen, that I recognise it immediately and breathe a sigh of relief long before the protagonist’s escape from imminent death is realised. Unconsciously, I have seen and understood the signposts prior to getting to the scene where the drama is resolved. The tension is dissipated earlier than the writer might have intended.

One of the conventions of the novel that I have been considering is the simple dichotomy of the protagonist and the antagonist. The good guy and the bad guy. Very often they are clearly delineated characters within the book. They do not have to be as unsubtle as Batman and Joker. Sometimes, and often for the better I think, they are both surrounded by an area of grey where the clear lines become blurred. The existence of the protagonist and their conflict with one or more antagonists is often what drives a story forward, especially in the genres that I like to both read and write, but I am not sure that that is the situation in real life. The majority of people are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but something of a combination of the two. Okay, that is not a ground-breaking observation. Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the television show I mentioned was an examination of this very fact. However, characters do often fall into the traditional division of good guy and bad guy.

I am looking at changing the motivation of all of my characters. It is normal for a character to be motivated by clear and easy to understand considerations. Occasionally, these can give rise to inner conflicts that must be resolved for that character to become the hero of the story. Another well known device. It occurred to me that removing that clarity might make things more interesting. Instead of employing clear lines of delineation I am playing with the idea of letting the reader decide for themselves who is the good guy or the bad guy. I am not going to place any markers on my characters in that respect. One of them may appear to be the antagonist but what if that is just a matter of perception? How easy would it be for the same character to be seen as something different, the protagonist even, from a different point of view? I do not think that it will be easy. I think that it will be very demanding to write such a character and make the shifts from being seemingly the bad guy to seemingly the good guy logical, reasonable, and most importantly believable.

Writing the traditional form of the novel is relatively easy for me now, after six novels I suppose it should be. In many ways it feels like I have been honing my skills for this kind of challenge. I want to write something that is technically difficult and artistically challenging. I have this idea of a story where lines are blurred and I, as the omniscient author, do not make any judgements on the characters involved. Well, not obvious ones anyway. I intend for the reader to judge the characters according to their actions and how they relate to their words. People do not always do what they say they will do, that is a fact of life but not always a fact of literature.

There is a problem here, however. I read a novel in which the protagonist found themselves in a very difficult situation where they decided that the only means of survival was to do something terrible. I did not feel that the writer handled the scene very well. I understood the logic of the character’s thinking, but I believe that the author had not thought the process through properly on a bigger scale. The protagonist did the terrible thing and survived. My impression was that the author always wanted them to do so as it allowed the protagonist to transition into another kind of life, one where you do not normally find heroes. The character lost all of my sympathy as a result of this act. As the reader I stopped caring for them, which can be a fatal outcome for the author. It certainly is not something that any capable writer should be looking to achieve. There was logic to the protagonists thinking but, on a larger scale, the scene itself lacked any internal logic. Alternative options were never explored. The consequences of the action were not considered. A supporting character who had helped to define the protagonist as such was sacrificed to make a moment of drama that subtracted rather than added to the main character’s development. It was driven in a deterministic fashion to achieve an end result that was not necessarily in keeping with the behaviour of the character as I understood them at that point in the story.

The question I must ask myself is why are my characters doing the things that they do? Again, this is not original for a writer. I think, however, that I am as guilty as many in not always going far enough with the answer. It is often easy to take the first thing that comes to mind in reply to the question. Character A does this because they are the good guy and character B does that because they are the bad guy. That is one of the limitations of using a dichotomy in character development. In freeing my characters from that limitation, however, I have to be careful that any actions that might result in one or more of them being seen in radically different way conforms with their own internal logic. The reader must be able to perceive that any given act is within their understanding of that character. This does not mean that I, as the writer, should not put them in situations that demand extreme decisions from them, actions that might even go against the grain, but rather that any such action that is taken is understandable within the context of the scene, the larger story, and the characters involved. Also, if the consequences of that action results in the protagonist losing their place as such then I should acknowledge that fact in my writing afterwards and not attempt to continue to portray them as the hero when clearly, they no longer are. That was the mistake that the author made in the book I mentioned above.

We judge. It is a survival tactic. We judge other people both consciously and unconsciously. We judge everything we come into contact with in life, food, drink, prospective partners, friends, enemies, situations, words, images, sounds, smells, and anything else that we perceive. It is all data. It all needs to be analysed. All this information is necessary to our decision making. We use it constantly in everything that we do. We do judge. In removing the traditional markers from my characters, I am hoping to make the reader decide for themselves who the heroes and who the villains are. It would be quite interesting if two readers formed entirely different opinions in that respect. I do not know if I am capable as a writer of achieving such an outcome, but that is where the challenge lays.

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