Growing up, I read a lot of stories and watched a lot of movies that followed traditional story arcs that started with the rise of a hero and ended with the fall of the villain. The hero’s journey became so engrained in my head that the idea that a good guy could be flawed or a bad guy could be anything but the embodiment of evil simply didn’t resonate with me.
For clarity, yes, I knew there were tragic heroes and I love the idea of tragic heroes, but by labeling them a hero I felt like they were still boxed into the assumption that they were the person a reader was supposed to support.
So it’s no surprise that when I started writing my stories followed a similar arc. What may also not be a surprise is the fact that I hated what I was writing because every story I penned reminded me of something I’d already written. In college, I remember a lecture about how every story arc we can imagine has already been told at some point in history, and, as writers, we need to find new ways to retell old stories.
Although I conceptually understood what my professor was saying, I simply couldn’t get my head out of that mindset that good guys are good and bad guys are bad. My writing and my ambition to write took a nosedive. I don’t even think you could call it imposter syndrome. I just felt like a failure and that trickled into other parts of my life, too.
At some point, in my many failed attempts to write a book and my attempt to simply exist, I came to a realization: the idea of protagonists and antagonists is a made-up concept used to influence people’s perception of characters. The more I thought about this, I understood that every protagonist is also someone else’s antagonist – it’s all dependent on who is telling the story, much like how our history books paint a picture of the world from the eyes of those who claim victory.
For example: in Star Wars, we’re led to believe that the rebels are the force fighting for good and the Empire is evil. But how many people do you think joined the Empire because they just needed a job and it paid that sweet government money? How many people joined the Empire in non-combat roles? How many of those people died when the rebels destroyed the Death Star?
I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and plans to be evil. I don’t think anyone in the history of man has ever looked at his or her actions and thought that what he were doing was anything short of what was best for himself or those he cares about (at least not while in the moment). This was an ah-ha moment for me.
I realized that I could create fresh takes on old stories if I just tried to look at all my characters as people and not labels. I found that my characters developed in extraordinary ways when they all had noble goals that readers could get behind, or when the good guys made mistakes and the bad guys showed compassion.
I also sought books that followed this idea. The best of which, I think is I am Legend by Richard Matheson (not to be confused with the 2007 Will smith movie which, was good, but changed some very important details from the book).
Life is not black and white, it’s a glorious shade of gray. So, I’ve said goodbye to terms like protagonist and antagonist, good guy and bad guy, and just refer to my characters as simply people. Every time I sit down to write, I challenge myself to make characters who act in a way where, by the end of the story, the reader is left questioning who was right and who was wrong. I hope this leads to great discussions and debates among fans.
What do you think? Do you like characters who are easily identifyable as good or bad? Or do you like ambiguity among the cast? Let me know if the comments!