Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Michael Camp will scope out your motel room, your car, your apartment. He'll break in while you're gone, or knock you out if you're there. He'll steal from you anything of value so he can buy his next fix.
Different characters from different books. What do they have in common? They’re the protagonists.
A protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero, he doesn’t even have to be likable, but he does have to be sympathetic. Brady Darby, from Riven by Jerry Jenkins, and Michael Camp, from I Called Him Dancer by Eddie Snipes, are definitely not heroic during the bulk of their stories, but amazingly enough, they are sympathetic.
When Darby finds a girl to love, the readers hope for a turnaround. But he makes awful decisions, has awful luck--and a loaded weapon he didn’t really intend to use. By the time he commits murder, the readers aren’t surprised, only disappointed.
Michael’s mother abandoned him at the home of a relative who didn’t want him either. He did eventually land with a family who cared enough for him to allow him to chase his dream of becoming a professional dancer. The reader roots for him all the way from after-school dance classes to the elite Pahl School of Dance, all the while seeing the abuse he has to overcome doled out by high school bullies. But because of the way Snipes opened the story--in the tale's "present time," the question throughout the backstory is: How did Michael become a street bum?
After all the lectures about dumping backstory into your novel, we see stories like these, where backstory is vital to making bad boys sympathetic. The reader has to care about these characters or they won’t read far enough to see what happens to them. Just telling the reader that the protagonists had a rough life doesn't cut it. The reader needs to see hopes and dreams dashed and see a feasible progression from the character's history to the character's current state.
But we also have to see the protagonist doing things that would reinforce our sympathy. Darby protects his brother, Michael protects his dance partner. Because of these actions, the reader continues to hope for redemption, and continues reading until his hope is fulfilled.
Writing bad boy protagonists is trickier than it sounds. The risk of losing your reader because he hates the character is present all through the novel. You must obtain and retain sympathy, or no one will care about the story. Develop and present a backstory that will earn sympathy, and show events that will provide the reader with hope, and you'll have him hooked all the way though.