The iconic imprint of good and evil lodges deep in all our minds. The Wild West shootout between a blond, clean-shaven sheriff in a white hat and a scruffy sidewinder in a black hat. A caped superhero foiling the world domination plans of some maniacal villain. A handsome and patriotic spy who overcomes the foreign foe. It’s not like that anymore.
Our good guys are not always so good and our bad guys aren’t always so bad. A good writer keeps this in mind. It makes the protagonist and his antagonist seem more real as well as more interesting.
Giving Your Protagonist Flaws
In my novel Prince, Charlie is a main character full of flaws and even unattractive behavior. He chews tobacco, which is not merely an incidental vice. Hestarted chewing at his high school graduation with his best friend who died soon after. His tobacco use is really a homage to the friend, even though it is disgusting.
Charlie craves a good relationship with his father, Philip, but bad mouths Philip to anyone who will listen to him, even to the point of annoyance. And even though he skipped college, he is a smart well-read young man. At a dinner party, Charlie has decided to use his self-education to make fun of the host. It begins as mild amusement and simple entertainment. Eventually, it annoys everyone and the dinner party breaks up. Charlie can be a jerk.
But he is the good guy. Most of his bad traits stem from some selfishness, a bigger issue he must overcome to turn out all right in the end. He does, even laying down his tobacco as he leaves at the end.
Making Your Antagonist Sympathetic
Charlie may have picked up his selfishness from his father, because Philip is indeed a selfish businessman who doesn’t care who he steps on to make a buck. And just as you are ready to hate him, the third part of the book begins with him sitting at his desk at home at dawn, having not slept all night. He mutters that his new bride doesn’t love him and that she never will.
His human sorrow touches the reader and you forget you’re not supposed to like him. He even accuses her of cheating on him later in the day because of his frustrations regarding her. Add to this that his first wife left him and his mother died delivering him, and readers understand Philip has clearly never known the deep love of a woman. That makes him more sympathetic.
Philip also has a problem with his own father, and these daddy issues are his undoing by the end of the story. He is a lonely man. Even those near to him are separated from him by something. His best fiend, a senator, uses him. His most trusted employee is a sycophant. His loyal servant abandons him. His board of directors ignores him.
And yet he is the bad guy. Instead of overcoming his selfishness, he is overcome by it. By the end, he is a bitter man, out to destroy anyone not on his side, including Charlie.
The reader can clearly see who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist, but they are not wearing white and black hats. Their characters have been grayed. This makes for better reading, as well as for more challenging writing.