Monday, November 2, 2009

Ask The Editor - How bad can a character be?

Rob Walker asks:

“Would you say that in general, no matter the provocation, that your main character can not do a despicable act? OK that is unfair and too general. But in general, is it a problem when our hero or heroine sinks to the level of the killer that they chase? Are there exceptions as in self defense?”

Good question Rob, and I will do my best to answer.

While some authors do let their protagonists sink as low as the bad guys, it is usually under extreme provocation and the character is already set up as a maverick so to speak. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole is a good example. He is not above breaking the law or killing people when he sees it as necessary to save someone else.

There are other characters, like Parker’s Spenser, who bend the rules but what makes it work is that they are at heart good people doing good things. The readers relate to that goodness and accept a temporary fall from grace. That is especially true if the character does not like the fact that he or she has to resort to lawlessness and killing. One element that separates the protagonist and antagonist in a murder mystery is that the antagonist likes what he or she is doing and has no intention of ever stopping.

One thing to keep in mind when creating characters is that they are all human, so nobody is totally good or bad. Even antagonists usually have some small redeeming quality that connects with readers. Think of Hannibal Lector and his affinity for classical music. And protagonists have their dark side. That is part of what makes them three-dimensional, but they differ from the antagonist in that they try to avoid the dark side whenever possible, only going there as a last resort.

Thanks again, Rob for submitting the question and have fun with your next character.

Rob Walker is the author of numerous books, the latest is Dead On, a suspense novel.
Visit Maryann Miller's Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.


  1. I find it interesting that Rob's question presupposes the main character is a 'hero' or 'heroine'.

    I find that almost all my main characters are so flawed, that although they're not entirely evil you could hardly call them heroes.

    It provides a great source of conflict and I think it makes the writing more compelling.

    I would always recommend writers make their good guys do, or think, or feel something truly terrible!

  2. Ah, but that all depends on how you define Hero or Heroine, doesn't it? The classic Hero of myth was a very, very flawed creature. Look at Ulysses, who according to the story was famous for being duplicitous, for being a very effective liar. And look at Hector, a hero of classic literature in the Iliad. Hector fought for glory only, not for country, loyalty, or to saves the lives of those he cared about--but he was a Hero.

    The word "Hero" is used today in a much different way than it was used in the past, although the newest crop of Superheroes have all the flaws of everyday humans, with the added burden of trying to control their superpowers and not misuse them when angered, jealous or whatever. Yet, they are heroes, and in some ways closer to the old heroes of myth, or even to the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, who were merely humans grown overlarge, overpowerful and often cruel.

  3. I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Her main character is definitely flawed, but so plausibly and redeemably so that the reader (this reader anyway) hangs onto every word.

  4. Ah, yes, Cole and Spenser... two of my favourites (and Scudder).

    Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is forgivable; doing the right thing for the wrong reason isn't.

    The moral compass should guide your character in these situations.

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" will be released in two weeks!

  5. I think in the publishing world, especially in genre fiction, the term hero and heroine are used too often in place of "central character" or "protagonist". I'm sure that is what Rob meant when he used the term hero. At least that is what I went with in my answer. :-)

  6. These days, especially in movies, the lines are very murky.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. I love this topic. I hate when a hero or heroine is perfect. My characters live in shades of gray, even the ones some would consider a villain. However, a writer has to tread carefully or they could make their main characters too unlikeable for readers.

  8. I'm reading the Mitch Rapp series by Vince Flynn. I'm reading book 5 or 6. In this book, I'm liking Rapp less than before. In this one he seems hungry to kill (granted, he kills only the bad guys or those trying to harm the US) and he'll confront anyone who doesn't agree with him. It feels a little like he's gone over the top and is looking for people to kill, as if he's crossing that line between hero and bad guy. Since he's the hero, I'm hoping we're seeing his dark side, but he won't cross over to the dark side.

    Straight From Hel

  9. On TV, Jack in 24 is definitely doing terrible things for what he believes are the right reasons.

    I'm also reminded of the MC in A History of Violence. A bad guy becomes a good guy, then is pushed beyond the limits back into being a bad guy. Fascinating. Then, again, Viggo Mortensen makes anything fascinating to me.

  10. Helen, I agree. i don't like a character who seems to enjoy killing -- at least not the protagonist. What I really like about Elvis Cole is that killing really unnerves him. I just read one of the first books that introduced this character and his reaction to having to kill someone is powerful, and it doesn't just last a moment. He is upset for some time, and has to convince himself that it was the right thing to do to save a child. Powerful characterization.

  11. I have a character in Dead On, the heroine who spends the entire book wanting revenge and she is driven to it, and she would have gone too far had she not been talked down by the hero. I do mean central characters when I use these terms. In other books, I have created central characters with more flaws than you can shake a stick at but when I wanted Alastair Ransom to make a unnich of a pedophile priest my editor balked big time and isnisted I find another way...which I did but Ransom is arrested for it due to his reputaiton. So I am no stranger to over the top central characters. I posed the question to truly ask if your main character did something of that nature, cut off someone's privates for instance, or fire an arrow through the bad guy's family jewels at point blank we lose the patience and understanding of the reader. OK there I have been more specific haven;t I?

  12. I have flawed characters :)
    Interesting post, when I read a book and the MC is so perfect, I cringe. I find myself saying no one is that perfect and then lose track of the story.
    I have a character that seems to good to be true, so I gave her a flaw and I like her a little better for it.

  13. If someone shot an arrow through somebody's privates at point blank range I probably would keep reading. Especially in the case you described where the person performing the castration has a good reason to want to do it.

    As long as it is carefully crafted I can find almost any level of violence or insanity plausible! It doesn't necessarily turn me off a character or make me lose interest in a novel.

    I would have said go for it!

  14. Then there is Jeff Lindsay's Dexter. A serial killer who kills other serial killers. But is he doing the wrong thing for the right reason or the wrong thing because he has to, whether it's wrong or not? He works for the police force. He could just turn the evidence over to this sister.

    But he LIKES killing. And he's a fascinating and very fun character to hang out. And creepy, too.

  15. Debbie, I just couldn't connect with Dexter. I tried several times, but just couldn't stomach the fact that he enjoys killing and I should somehow say that is okay because he is killing other serial killers and helping the police. My mind just can't go there, which doesn't mean I have any judgment of folks who can accept his characterization.

  16. Another great post, Maryann.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  17. If you read just about any book published by HARD CASE CRIME, you will find a hero /heroine/central character doing fairly despicable things for a variety of reasons. The writing is usually very good and the authors involved make it work.

    I think it really depends on the overall story. The only limits I see regard whether or not the publisher will allow the book to be published as the author wrote it. Some readers may refuse to read it, but that happens with any book.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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