Self Publishing - The Gray Areas

We’ve been discussing, and I use this term loosely (obviously since I’m still not convinced that I don’t write this blog merely to have discussions with myself), necessary aspects that an author must include in their work.

An age old debate is black and white versus gray areas. I suppose that seems an odd transition from the previous paragraph. Let me explain. Every story. . .scratch that. . .every entertaining and captivating story has a protagonist and an antagonist, a good guy and a bad guy. I use the term “guy” as an gender neutral term. Please stop getting offended so easily. Many times these characters are clearly defined and easily recognizable. They can each be singular characters, a group of characters, a scenario (apocalypse or natural disaster), etc.

However, throughout the course of the written word (perhaps since the dawn of time? I don’t know, I’m fairly young) there have been a select few who have recognized that these characters aren’t always so easily defined. Reality is much more about the fuzzy than the clearly defined. Your best friend can hurt you just as easily as your worst enemy can help you.

So, as writers, how do we decide where to draw the line? How do we create the characters? How human do you make your protagonist? How far do you take his or her flaws? How evil do you make the antagonist? Is he or she relatable at all to your readers?

According to my go-to website when I can’t think of the proper word I want to use (dictionary.com):

Antagonist: a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another; opponent; adversary.

Protagonist: the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work.

I know. I know. “But Ann,” you say. “Duh. We know this. We’ve looked up the word before. It’s not difficult to remember.” But these are not perfectly straight forward definitions. While hero does insinuate that the protagonist is courageous and good hearted, antagonist does not necessarily equal bad or evil. It’s just so often that happens to be the case.

I reckon that it can be argued that if you make your “villain” too relatable, that character could easily become your protagonist in the readers’ eyes. That’s happened to me on multiple occasions. I don’t always cheer for the character that the author wants me to.

“Ann,” you look at me with confused eyes. “What exactly are you trying to say here?”

I think that what I’m trying to say is that when we’re younger, we assume that good guys are good and bad guys are bad. Unfortunately it’s not that simple, ever. And we have psychologists and doctors to tell us that now. Our job, as writers, is to present a story. If you wish to sway your audience in a certain direction, you need to make sure your written word is appropriately persuasive. But what’s persuasive to you may not be persuasive to your readers.

My alternative to this is to write the story as it comes to me, gray areas and all. Make your readers work (a little) to understand your characters and relate to them. Let them decide who to root for. Let them put a little effort in.

I realize this goes against advice I’ve given in previous blogs, but that only matters if you’ve read my previous blogs. And if you have, you’ll know that I’ve covered writing for the audience you want. At least, I think I have. It’s been a long day and I don’t feel like taking the time to read through all of my countless other blogs to search for a specific quote or date. There are quite a few people who don’t want to put any effort into reading. They merely want to be led. Others want to feel smarter for having read your work. So you should write for the audience you desire.

I write this as I struggle with it on my own. As an author, I love all my characters – “good” and “bad,” important and non important, human and non human. But someone has to lose, especially in fiction. Very few people would go to see a movie about a couple who meets, instantly falls in love, never has any drama or problems, and lives happily ever after. Where’s the plot? Where’s the point? Where’s the conflict?

And so I ask you, in turn, where’s your conflict? Is it between your protagonist and antagonist? Is it between the audience and your protagonist? Or is it an internal struggle to dislike the “bad” guy?

I’m not going to proof this blog before I post it. It’s past midnight and it was a long day. But sleep is elusive tonight and I needed to ramble. So take what you can from the above. Sometimes I ramble about topics and people say “Genius!!” (in a French accent, of course) and other times they take away my bottle of wine. 

photo credit: Joakim Berndes via photopin cc