Sometimes, you can learn a lot from a book you wouldn’t normally read.
When I went away this year, I finished my holiday read on the train ride to the airport, so I decided to buy something new before I got on the plane. The bookshop offered me a choice between Fifty Shades of Grey, or a number of Lee Child thrillers. I’d heard praise for the Jack Reacher books, and figured that the blend of violence, intrigue and action was probably going to capture my interest more than erotica.
I found book one of the series, Killing Floor, and loved it. However, now I’ve just finished book two, Die Trying, and I can’t help thinking that there is a lot writers can learn from Lee Child about how to craft a solid protagonist.
Even Heroes Make Mistakes
When you spend all of your time with your protagonist, that can be a tendency to infuse that character with all sorts of positive qualities, and forget their flaws. These protagonists never do anything wrong, and they become the dreaded ‘Mary Sue’. Yet Reacher makes mistakes, and gets things wrong – in some cases in a massive way. Reacher feels more believeable, and we become interested – not to see him make mistakes, but to see how he will fix them.
Besides, conflict is your engine driving the plot forward – making mistakes is one of the quickest ways to generate conflict, and since adversity often exposes character, you can use it as an opportunity for us to get a better handle on your protagonist and how he/she will cope.
They Don’t Have To Be Perfect
Reacher is an ex-military policeman, and as such, he knows how to handle bad guys when they step out of line. But he also recognises that sometimes, you have to break the rules of engagement to get the job done. You’ll sometimes come across Reacher shooting men in the back, or going for “low blows”.
Lee Child himself admits that these things should make us dislike Reacher as they go against the traditional notions of the hero. However, I think we end up admiring Reacher for his efficient way of solving problems, and we become sufficiently emotionally invested in him as a character that we almost ‘overlook’ these incidents, instead seeing them as simply actions which add up to make the bigger picture. It humanises your character, making it much easier for the reader to empathise with them.
We Don’t Need To Know What Your Protagonist Looks Like
All we know about Reacher is that he’s 6ft 5ins tall, 220lbs, and blond with blue eyes (yeah, you can see why Tom Cruise was ideal casting for the movie…). We get occasional mentions of his physique but other than that, Lee Child skips the details and lets you sketch them in yourself.
Reacher’s height and build are important as he often uses them to his advantage in combat, but everything else is superfluous to the plot, and Child’s books are all about plot. The other bonus to keeping details to a minimum is it allows your reader to picture the hero the way they want to picture him. So ditch those scenes in which your protagonist examines themselves in the mirror and casually drop those details that matter into your prose – and your protagonist will become stronger for it.
Loners Need Companions Too
There can be a tendency within fiction towards the ‘lone wolf’ hero. You particularly get them in fantasy, with warrior or barbarian characters operating alone. Trouble is, no matter how cool the loner is, that makes them boring. They have no one to spark off, and no one to talk to.
No one cares about internal monologue, and as with a lot of fiction, you’re looking for ways to build character. Dialogue is one of the best, and most natural, ways to reveal character, so give your protagonist someone to talk to. The Lone Ranger had Tonto, Batman has Robin and Alfred – even Iron Man has Jarvis.
Reacher often has close confidantes and the way he relates to them, and protects them, tells us a lot about who he is as a character – and the companions provide ways to drive the plot forward. Plus, what the companions do provides something for your protagonist to react to – so you’d better develop your companion characters just as much as you develop your hero!
Make Your Readers Care How Your Hero Survives (Even If It’s Obvious They Will)
There are now seventeen Jack Reacher novels – bit of a giveaway that no matter how much trouble he gets into, Reacher will find a way to get out of it. That knowledge diffuses some of the dramatic tension because we no longer worry about him.
Instead, Lee Child turns our emotions from worry and concern to curiosity and we end up wondering not if he’ll escape, but how he will do it. For one thing, you can’t always guarantee that those around him will escape the danger, so we may not worry about Reacher but we may worry about them (and if there’s one thing the Reacher books demonstrate, is that no character is really safe from the chopping block). Secondly, and this links back to point #1, your hero won’t always get things right, which just gives him more things to fix…
Your Protag Should React To The Plot
I think all these points add up to something similar, in that finding ways to build a character through his or her reaction to the plot is, in itself, a great way to drive the plot forward. I’d highly recommend reading the first Jack Reacher book, Killing Floor, to get an idea of what I mean, but you could equally study other flawed heroes, such as Frodo of Lord of the Rings, James T. Kirk, or even Doctor Who.
What about you? Do you agree, or do you think there are better ways to craft a solid protagonist?