Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Avoid Sad Sack Protagonists

This top post of 2016 was first published on June 2nd.

Your characters should be multi-faceted. They should have strengths and weaknesses.

Wounds from life that haven't healed can supply internal conflict or motivate them to take on the overall story problem.

However, if your character is so lacking in self-esteem that he is not equal to tackling the overall story problem or so sniveling or pathetic the reader can’t get behind him, it is a serious plot fail.

If you decide to burden your characters with low self-esteem at least understand the why and how. Use the problem judiciously to motivate them, not from a standpoint of ignorance. Choose the degree of affliction carefully.

As children grow up, there are several ways in which their self-esteem is damaged.

1. Healthy self-esteem requires competence.

A child needs to feel self-confident and independent. If Dick, as a child, is not allowed to master things, to build self-confidence and independence, he becomes weak and helpless and develops an inferiority complex.

These problems can complicate Dick's relationships, friendships, social connections, and job performance. Dick's inferiority complex can create conflict in all layers of story problem. Wherever he goes, whoever he meets, he will feel "one down." He will hear implied criticism where none is intended. He will grow resentful of everyone he deems "one up": those who are smarter, richer, or more successful.

How far he goes to level the playing field depends on the type of story you are telling and the type of character he plays. Is he the villain? Is he a foe? Worse, is he a friend?

2. Healthy self-esteem requires confidence.

If Jane lacks confidence, she might irrationally defer to others. She can lack ambition and be pessimistic. This creates conflict with her lovers, family members, friends and business partners. In this state, Jane makes a good foe. It's hard to be friends with her. Her friends will grow tired of her negativity and inability to make a decision.

3. Healthy self-esteem requires self-respect.

If Sally has low self-esteem, she'll have a hard time appreciating other people. The darker side of low self-esteem can drag her into drug addiction and crime. She does not love herself, so she cannot feel the love other people try to give her. She will take every positive comment they make as a personal attack. Sally makes a poor friend and coworker. No matter how hard you try to make Sally feel better, she'll twist what you say to fit her negative self-image.

Misery not only loves company, miserable characters will go to great lengths to drag others down with them.

Severely broken characters do not make good protagonists, unless it is a literary story where you follow the character’s arc from low self-esteem to high self-esteem.

Everyone has down days, but if Dick is depressed, he always feels low. It keeps him from succeeding in relationships, friendships, at work, and in social organizations. He won’t make a good antagonist or hero in a Thriller or action tale because he can’t summon the requisite energy.

Depressed characters can be the protagonist in a literary story where they overcome the problem.

Depressed characters can be friends and foes in the other genres.

I've read a few stories with depressed, self-loathing main characters. It was difficult to root for them.

There is a trend to utilize horrible people as protagonists. For some writers, the ploy has worked but with mixed reviews. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling comes to mind.

I don’t read those books, probably for the same reason I don’t watch “reality” TV where dysfunctional people “show their backsides,” as my granny would say, for public entertainment.

I am troubled by the presentation of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse as humorous rather than tragic. Abuse is a sad reality for too many people. As a writer your manipulation of the characters and plot illustrates abuse as excusable or criminal. But that is a topic for another day.

Your protagonist does not have to be perfect, but he must inspire the reader to root for him. We can root for him to succeed in his overall story goal or fail at it. Either way, by making us care about the story outcome, you supply the needed tension to keep readers turning pages.

Sad sack protagonists can make readers toss your book into the garbage bin and leave scathing reviews.

For more information on building characters through personality types and nature/nurture, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict and SBB: Build a Cast Workbook.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Well, Diana, I'm happy to report that my protagonists have a whole lot more self-esteem than their creator.

  2. I've given up reading literary fiction for the time being because I grew sick of the focus on "losers" as main characters. They are boring, depressing, and uninspiring. These days I want to be uplifted by the books I read.

  3. This in-depth post tells it like it is when it comes to characterization. When creating characters, we have to remember that they must be three-dimensional if they are to be believable. Very rarely does a flat, two-dimensional character rise off the page to pull a reader into a story. Also, they must behave in a manner consistent with the person we have birthed on our pages. In my early writing years, a fellow author told me that no character is all good or all bad. Similarly, your points in this article are vital to remember as we hammer out our stories and hone their occupants. Thank you for sharing this keeper!

    1. We also need to let them tell their story rather than cramming our story down their throats -- within the limits of adhering to whom we've shown them to be and not allowing them to digress too far out of the story line.

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  4. Great post, Diana. I don't know why people want to read books with unlikable characters. The fact that many of them are super bestsellers boggles my mind, yet reviewers say they couldn't find a worthy character in the entire book. WHY READ THAT AUTHOR THEN? There's a difference between complicated and unlikable. I feel a book tells of a character's journey. I want to root for a character, and I want to write characters readers can root for.

  5. There's a trend in storytelling to offer a wink and a nod toward those behaving badly (abusively, illegally) as long as it is funny, where's the harm?


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