Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Quick take: make it hard on your protagonist

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 18•19

Common writing advice has been circulating for decades: pile on obstacles in your main character’s path. Here’s a reminder: those obstacles, causing tension and suspense, should also come from within the protagonist. Which brings us to character flaws.

Characters are far from perfect, which is why we love them and relate to them and worry over their fates. We see ourselves in their bumbles and screw-ups.

When you first begin imagining your main player, he or she also needs a moral deficiency along with an inner frailty. Let’s say your character grew up overlooked in a family of geniuses or super stars or beauties. Real or perceived lacks or feelings of inferiority can stain a lifetime.

If your character feels second-rate how will he react to an antagonist who won’t take him seriously? How about an antagonist who denigrates him? How will he react? It’s likely his reactions won’t be entirely rational. Or what about a suitor who comes along with grand promises of an easy life and a forever love? Or an antagonist who suggests shortcuts or instant fame? Will his moral weakness stand in his way or will he ultimately choose a principled path?

Moral dilemmas and hard choices make the story unputdownable. Toxic shame or low self-esteem or stuck thinking are barriers to happiness and redemption as we all know. We see them all the time in real life and of course these demons also translates to the screen.

For a contemporary example of moral & emotional deficiencies, check out Season 3 of HBO’s True Detectives. In the series, the leads played by Mashershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, are damaged men who wrestle with their demons as much as with the evidence in the case. Two children disappear as the story opens and the twists and various timelines in the story create a labyrinth the viewer cannot resist wandering through. Feeling doomed.

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