Last week we talked about your protagonist (hero/heroine) and the importance of making him a well-rounded character with the flaws and frailties possessed by real people. But it's easy to fall into the trap of creating characters that are clichés, or stereotypes. Doesn't the feisty southern belle I mentioned earlier sound like a cliché? Because Scarlett has become so well known through Gone with the Wind's bestseller status, when a character similar to hers is used, it no longer feels original. Other examples of overused stereotypes: the hooker with a heart of gold; the sweet, cookie-baking grandmother; the gentle giant; and the cigar-chomping newspaper editor, to name a few.
These are caricatures, painted with a broad brush to give the reader something easily understood. There's nothing wrong with using them, as long as you don't stop there. To avoid your protagonist being a stereotype, you can instead make him a strong archetype.
What's the difference? Archetypes are useful in that they're easily recognizable, but they also have depth. They're full of contradictions (brought on by those flaws we talked about). The feisty (there's that word again) female detective is a commonly used archetype in series fiction. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is a good example. Kinsey's contradiction is that, though she's a competent detective, her private life is a mess. She can't commit to a relationship, is alienated from her family and pays little attention to her appearance. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is a female bail bondsman who is fussy about her appearance, is close to her family and is torn between the affections of two men. Stephanie's contradiction is that she doesn't seem like the type of person who would be working as a bail bondsman. Her flaw is that she loves two men and can't decide between them.
If your protagonist has a lot of negative qualities that he doesn't seem to want to overcome, yet he's in a situation in which he strives to do the right thing, he might be an anti-hero. In that an anti-hero reflects society's confusion about morality, he must still be a sympathetic character (remember the alcoholic in last week's blog?).
An excellent example of an anti-hero can be seen in Ken Kesey's, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The protagonist, Randle McMurphy, is a convict, a troublemaker and a womanizer, yet he's also a charming rake who genuinely cares about the mental patients in the psychiatric hospital he has come to.
And this brings me to a question from last week's blog -- is it always clear as to who is the protagonist of a story? In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the events are seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, who also narrates the story. But since the story is about Randle McMurphy and how he (temporarily) transforms the mental ward, he is the protagonist. And as an anti-hero, he doesn't necessarily come to a good end.
"It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." Mark Twain.