I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of fiction, to stories that brood on the imperfections of the human soul and the obstacles that war, poverty, social upheaval, illness, or just plain bad luck, throw in our way. All day long, I try to be exceedingly bright and pleasant to my neighbors and colleagues, my family, my dog. But when I pick up a novel, or begin to write one, I want to indulge in the shadows. Fortunately, modern literature is crowded with “antiheroes” – protagonists who lie, cheat, cower, abuse, and kill. The classic example is Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment: a sick, seedy, resentful, deranged student who brutally murderers a poor old woman and her daughter, simply in order to test his misguided theory of moral exceptionalism. Some readers might find him repulsive, but he remains one of the most fascinating and affecting characters in all of fiction. Indeed, the novel was the literary hit of 1866, and total sales are still climbing.
This guest post is by David Weisberg. Weisberg is an English professor, author of several books, and playwright, and his new novel The American Plan (Habitus Books/April 2017) has been described as a cross between Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Ian Fleming’s James Bond. His protagonist, Philip Narby, is modeled after literature’s classic anti-heroes – characters with few redeeming qualities that continue to fascinate readers.
In my novel The American Plan I created my own brand of antihero. All along, I knew I ran the risk of alienating potential readers. My protagonist, Philip Narby — an unapologetic drug addict, a frequenter of prostitutes, cynical and paranoid, eager to betray friend and country alike to advance his own ends — has few redeeming qualities. Yet his story is compelling, and he carries the plot and themes forward with energy and excitement. Without giving away too much of the book, I can explain some of the choices I made in crafting Narby as a credible, effective, even sympathetic protagonist, despite the gaping flaws in his character.
1. Narrative Perspective
After much consideration, I decided to write the entire novel from Narby’s perspective, using a tightly controlled “over-the-shoulder” third-person voice. This accomplished two things: first, the more the reader sees the world through the eyes of the protagonist, the more likely she is to sympathize with his plight, despite his failings. Second, by avoiding the first-person, I created separation and tension between the protagonist and the world against which he struggles. Even though the reader sees the world more or less through Narby’s eyes, it’s not his world, not his voice. A first-person voice would have revealed perhaps too much about Narby’s inner life. So, while the reader understands Narby’s intimate desires and fears, at the same time he remains a mystery.
This was difficult to pull off. I had a model for this type of suspenseful narration in Patricia Highsmith’s masterful The Talented Mr. Ripley. Indeed, Tom Ripley is one of the most fascinating antiheros of American fiction.
Only villains are evil — antiheros are deluded, damaged individuals.
My protagonist’s flaws are drawn from the psychology of everyday life, only intensified: the need to be loved, the craving to find relief from pain and anxiety, the fear of being abandoning, the resentment that arises from seeing people who are no better than you thrive, while you languish.
In particular, I used two of the most complex of human emotions — resentment and humiliation — to motivate my protagonist. These composite emotions weave together arrogance, fear, pride, insecurity, envy, and jealousy into a knot of potential conflict and action. They also activate the protagonist’s vulnerability, his longing to be accepted by the very society he hates. They make him more human, yet no less craven or self-serving.
Again, I had as one of my models Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Ripley’s resentments and humiliations, centered around his low social class and his repressed sexuality, fill him with longing and compel him to murder the one person he admires and then — in a twist the still fills me with wonder — assume the identity of the man he kills.
3. Secondary Characters
Like most antiheroes, my protagonist is an alienated loner, on the run, with enemies who, whether real or merely products of his paranoia, reflect the inherent injustice of the world he inhabits. I had to be very careful here, because I did not want to excuse my protagonist’s bad behavior, or worse, make him into a victim. But clearly, he is surrounded by others who, because they are socially powerful, cause harm and suffering through their hypocrisy and arrogance.
To serve this end, I created a few secondary characters who are blatantly afflicted with irrational hatreds and violent prejudice. So, though my antihero also carries these taints to a degree, his struggles against those worse than he ameliorate his own failings, giving the dark cloud of his character a tenuous silver lining, so to speak.
4. An Open Ending
To be true to my antihero protagonist, I could not have him “win” at the end of the novel. Having survived a series of struggles, physical and emotional, he is still alone, lost, unrepentant and unredeemed, yet nevertheless somehow changed. To show this change, I contrived a final, explosive scene that brought together the very worst and the most positive aspects of his nature, as though he were purging himself of all that had gone before, and leaving the possibility, no means assured, that he might still find a way to redeem himself or find a measure of happiness. He stands on the threshold of something new.
If these fiction-writing strategies intrigue you, I invite you to pick up The American Plan and judge how effectively I created a hero who carries the day, even though you might not want to invite him to dinner. Or maybe you would.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.