Is your protagonist confused?

I may have mentioned this before, but I am a big fan of protagonists with dubious character traits. There is something about a blurry line that adds flavour to their character depth. In fact, if the protagonist was to stop and consider themselves, they would be firmly on the wrong side of that invisible virtuous line.

So in short—I like my protagonist confused.

So here is an interesting analogy to help in the confused protagonist debate: If you are the kind of person who goes to the gym 5 days a week, then going 5 days a week is no big thing. BUT, if you struggle to go once a week, then 5 days in a row is a pretty impressive feat. And so with our protagonist. The more reluctant they are, the more doing something good or heroic chafes, the more interesting it is when they are finally forced to comply.

As a reader, the more confused you are about the protagonist, the more the tension grows. Will they do the right thing? Are they capable of doing the right thing even?

And what about our antagonist? Are they wholly bad? Do they have redeeming qualities? Do you empathise with them at any point in the book? Perhaps their behaviour has been abhorrent, and then you discover a terrible secret about their past that casts new questions onto everything they have so far done.

There is a certain fascination with a good guy, who is far removed from being good. And likewise with a bad guy who is not completely bad.

7 thoughts on “Is your protagonist confused?

  1. I agree.

    I recently created a very passive character who was the narrator and minor participant in the story. The people in my critique group – the wider, less knowledgeable-of-me ones- hated it. The others bided their time. Not only did he turn out to be a sneak, but he had been playing everyone else the whole time, waiting for his moment to turn on them and ruin everything. If you looked and were patient, it was there the whole time, and a cool surprise. But if you were a formulaic writer, which most agented scribes are willingly forced to be, you tuned out and missed the show.

    You know why a Ferrari gets your attention if you see one on the road? Because it’s different.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My protagonist has been brought up by my antagonist, and is told to be bad. Unfortunately for the antagonist he has decided to partner her with one of the good guys in the hope that she will destroy him in the end. What actually happens is that she is left with the debate of who she trusts, and what kind of person she thinks she is. So, she is probably confused.
    My antagonist is just pure evil, but I like him that way!
    I do agree with you though, I don’t really like a story where the protagonist is all goody two shoes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really needed to hear that today. I’ve been at war w/ myself over my antagonist. My fear is that readers will see him as too sympathetic, despite the fact he’s gone “scorched earth”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guess it depends what emotional engagement you want toward your antagonist, but ‘Scorched earth’ sounds pretty conclusive to me 😉 and if the reader feels sympathetic towards them despite this, then I am already intrigued.


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