By Sheila Lowe, author and forensic handwriting expert
Everyone alive is flawed in some way or another. None of us gets to be an adult without experiencing a load of crap that we’ve had to deal with. But I’ve noticed an extra helping of flaw and misery for the protagonists of many books I read. From the descriptions on the daily list of free or low cost books from BookBub, I’m struck by how many unhappy ones there are: alcoholics, drug abusers, “nearing 40 and desperately unhappy;” murdered spouse; broken heart; fighting cancer; “one tragedy after another.” And then, of course, there’s the perennially unhappy Kay Scarpetta.
Trust me, I understand the importance of “tension on every page.” I clearly remember a workshop I attended given by big time agent Donald Maas, who told us that to be successful writers, we must make things as bad for our protagonist as they could possibly be. Then make it worse. Then make it even worse. In fact, he spent most of a day repeating that mantra: make it even worse.
That’s a tough assignment if you like your protagonist. Putting him or her in dangerous situations is hard enough, but killing off their friends, making them ill, blowing up their house etc., takes real dedication to the craft. Claudia Rose, the heroine of my Forensic Handwriting mysteries is an ordinary person who, through her work, is thrown into extraordinary circumstances where she is forced to dig deep for courage, fortitude, and the other admirable characteristics that get her through. She’s been through her share of losses and difficulties, and I take it personally (crying real tears) when something awful happens to her.
Alcoholism, drug abuse, and all that other unhappy stuff is an ongoing part of life for many people. And when done well, those challenges can provide an interesting dimension to a character. The key, I think, is to make sure s/he is struggling to overcome those problems while keeping a sense of humor, not taking himself (or herself) so seriously that the reader can’t relate to him. We need to see the character arc—over the book, or through the series. Otherwise, there’s a danger of disliking that character, which could mean putting down the book and never picking it up again—the bane of an author’s existence. And, speaking from my own POV, I’m too old and leisure time is too limited to spend it with people I don’t like, even in books.
There’s no moral to this post. Just meandering in my mind, wondering whether any of you have had the same thoughts. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday weekend. I spent mine a bunch of mine fighting with Word (I’m a dyed-in-the-wool WordPerfect user).