Leading by example?

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Writing Lead Characters

Once upon a time I believed that all lead characters were supposed to be “the good guys.” How else was I meant to empathise with them? Why would I come along for the journey if I didn’t or couldn’t like them?

Those times are long gone, and although my leads are not exactly “bad,” they are a far cry from being good. As for perfection? Don’t even go there.

Now. Since you are a writer, you already know what the main types of leads to choose from are, but I always find it useful to go over well treaded ground. “Assume nothing. There’s always something new to learn.” – my mentor’s words spoken over a decade ago still ring true.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the three types of Lead characters:

  • The Positive Lead. No surprises there. This positive lead, traditionally referred to as the hero, represents the values of the community: the moral vision shared by most people. It is an easy fit for most novels since everyone (?) will root for a hero.

There are several reasons why most fiction uses the Positive Lead. The first is a straightforward one: it’s the easiest to bond with, and to carry an entire novel. By positive I don’t mean perfect. A realistic lead must also have flaws and foibles.

Those flaws must have a basis for their existence. That is not always the case in life, but when a reader picks up a novel and a few pages in spots that well crafted flaw, they will expect it to mean something. So it is key to explain and give it depth by delving into the character’s past.

  • The Negative Lead. If that is the lead you go for, then you’ve got your work cut out for you. Not only is this type the hardest lead to write well, but it’s a double struggle to get the reader, if not to like them, to at least find some way to connect.

Would anyone read a whole book about somebody who does not care about anyone else other than themselves? A negative lead would have flaws that require a lot of attention and explanation. They will, being negative of course, do things that we find reprehensible. If this is the lead of choice, to avoid a cardboard caricature, that delve into the past becomes inevitable.

  • The Anti-Hero. This to me is an even trickier type. The anti-hero is aloofness personified. They neither seek to be part of the community, nor do they actively oppose it. Living according to their own moral code, this lead necessitates careful handling.

What would make the anti-hero come out of their shell and drive action forward. After all, no lead is so averse to action than this loner. Circumstances make for a powerful motivator. Unfolding events must force them to join in the action, and those events must be believable. This is one hero that will not stick their head out for just anything, and at the end of it all, staying true to their nature, anti-heroes poignantly turn their backs to the world and return to their own.

As things stand I am yet to write a lead that is not positive. The closest to a negative lead that I have created is Lori, the main character of my second novel (working title) “The End of Sanity” from which the fragment Unfaithful was extracted.

Even this slight departure from the norm was a tough ask. I have delayed revision because the subject is still quite raw. It is some of the most honest writing I have ever done: just cut a vein open and dipped my quill in.

Will keep you abreast of developments. Until then: write. write. write.

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10 thoughts on “Leading by example?

    • Thank you, Nina. So pleased you liked it. I share your enthusiasm for anti-heroes. I may be mistaken, but I believe that all of us have an aloof side to our personalities, times when we need our own space and recoil from the demands of society. I often wonder whether it is through that part of ourselves that we make the connection with this particular type.

    • Thank you, Dawn. There are many excellent posts on writing and revision on WordPress, so I wondered whether there is any need to add another, but then I decided that I had to start somewhere. Who knows, I may accidentally stumble across an insight that is valuable to a fellow writer 🙂

  1. I don’t think I will be able to write a whole story with a negative lead. Consciously or unconsciously probably I will turn him/her in a good, or at least a socially acceptable, character.
    The anti-hero is an intriguing choice, but a tough one!

    • Thank you, Irene. Writing negative leads is very tough. The greatest challenge is to make them complex, multi-layered to such a degree that whilst the reader may gasp at their choices, and disagree, they would nonetheless understand why they are being made.
      The way I have been able to integrate aspects of the negative lead into my writing has been through mirror images, where the lead takes on aspects of both negative and positive leads. It is a balancing act, and at times it tips in one direction, then in the other.
      I love the idea of the anti-hero. I actually have an anti-hero in my third novel, but in order to handle them, I chose to tell their story from another character’s perspective, so my lead and my PoV characters are distinct.
      I do love playing with these types. It’s such an adventure, and once the back stories are complete and feel strongly settled in my mind, I let the characters loose and they always surprise me. Usually in a good way, although I’ve had some hiccups where we’ve had to have words 😉

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