Showing your protagonist, warts and all
What writer-type stuff do you want for Christmas (or your holiday of choice)? Let me know. We’re compiling a Holiday Gift Guide for publication in early December.
As I’m watching Mad Men and reading episode-by-episode reviews and discussion, I’m learning things I can apply to my writing. I’ll write another more general post another time, but today I wanted to concentrate on one point.
Jon Hamm has been nominated each of the four years he could have been nominated for playing the series lead, Don Draper. (He’s oh-for-four, making him the Buffalo Bills of the Emmys.) Don has a lot of positive qualities, but he’s also a womanizing petty bastard from time to time. And he can be mighty ruthless, when necessary. Hamm’s work is praised for, among other things, not trying to soften his character’s flaws and darker places. Essentially, in his portrayal, Don Draper stands naked before us, the audience. He doesn’t cover the less presentable parts.
He finds out that his soon-to-be-ex-wife Betty had an affair with Henry Francis–and is already hooked up with Henry, planning on leaving Don. He comes home drunk and yanks his wife from bed, and for a fleeting moment, the barrier between anger and violence strains as close to the breaking point as possible. Hamm presents a largely likable character, flaws and all, and risks alienating those who follow him.
Sure, Dallas did this with JR, but JR was a shadow of the character painted by Hamm and the Mad Men writers.
In a lot of the work I’ve read, particularly the first-person work, there’s a tendency to stand partially to fully clothed in front of the reader. Spenser, seen through a different lens, could be a smart-assed son of a bitch whose disdain for rules routinely makes things harder than they have to be. He’s a cowboy whose ways cause potential danger where it’s unnecessary. But because Spenser doesn’t see himself that way, it’s not typically presented at part of the Spenser persona.
But what if you show your protagonist as naked? What if his or her flaws are presented unflinchingly? The risk is enormous. First-person narrators tend to require a level of likability. But if you can overcome the need to obscure their flaws, you might be able to make them more real, and more riveting.