Why Was My Protagonist So Prickly?

From Writer Unboxed:

You know how it is when someone points out a jarring aspect of your writing, and you to go great lengths to explain why it’s absolutely purposeful and necessary? And then someone else points out the same element in a completely different manuscript … and then someone else in a third one …

When that happened to me, I thought it was just a tic in my writing. Then I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t about my writing, but about me—because we put features and feelings into our characters that reflect who we are and how we see the world. In my case, it was a tendency to make my protagonist brittle and defensive. Someone with a chip on her shoulder, a snarky edge.

I told myself that I needed her to be that way so I could show an arc of transformation into someone kinder and more generous. You have to have a before in order to show a contrasting after, right? That was the point—an emotional journey, through inner and outer challenges, to a better self.

Yet something began to nag at me, and I wondered why I always chose this particular kind of before, and whether it was helpful to my writing.

These are two separate but related questions. One was what this tendency implied about me, as a person. The other was whether it was the best choice for my stories. Since this isn’t a confessional website—and I’m a very nice person, really!—I decided to ponder the second question and see if it might shed light on the first.

I asked myself: Couldn’t there be a compelling story about the emotional journey of someone who starts out a little bit good, struggles, is tested, does something extraordinary, and ends up being “more good” than she was at the beginning? Why does the protagonist have to start out angry and selfish in order to have an epiphany, pivot, and moment of redemption? After all, why would readers want to spend the first fifty pages of a novel with someone they wouldn’t want to spend fifty minutes with in real life?

Insert head-smacking emoji—because that was exactly the problem with the early versions of my recent novel.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

3 thoughts on “Why Was My Protagonist So Prickly?”

  1. How about if somebody starts out angry and selfish in a world not to their liking and comes out even more so? Still an emotional journey.
    Especially if the protagonist is in the right, as in a dystopia.
    Or in the making of an anti-hero or a villain? Why must every protagonist be “good”, for different values of “good”?

    Prickly and defensive?
    Sounds like somebody that might be worth knowing, in the right story.

  2. I see where she is going with her article, but she is still missing the point.

    Being “prickly” is standard in so many stories that I’m hard pressed to see her problem.

    Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Phileas Fogg, Aloysius Pendergast, Katniss Everdeen, Hannibal Lecter, etc…, each start out prickly and are still prickly when the story ends because the events validate their view of humanity.

    That list goes back almost to the start of novels, two hundred years ago.

    She needs to read more fiction.(Yikes! That was me being “prickly”.)

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