Every story has to start somewhere. For me, it always starts with the main character. I often don’t even know what the story is when a character will pop into my head and demand my attention.
When a character is born in this way, they often make their own choice about what kind of main character they will be. But then all the characters around them have to be created and assigned a broad character type. If you have complex characters, they will often fall somewhere between two types. So you end up with seven broad categories:
*Everyman (or everywoman)
*Everyman (or everywoman) verging on hero
*Hero verging on anti-hero
*Anti-hero verging on villain
Personally, my main characters have never gone beyond hero verging on anti-hero. But I like to think that eventually I’ll get around to exploring them all.
Everyman (or Everywoman)
Literature is literally littered with the everyman and the everywoman (there’s an alliterative sentence I never thought I’d write). They’re the normal, everyday people who get up every morning, eat breakfast, go to work, have relationships, eat dinner, watch television and go to bed every night knowing they’ll never be asked to save the world.
A lot of realist fiction is populated with everymen and everywomen as it explores the existential quandaries of being ordinary. A side effect of being ordinary, of course, is that the characters are at less likely to be remembered in the way characters at the other end of the spectrum are. Their stories are remembered, the novels in which their stories appear are remembered, but the characters themselves seem almost like bit players.
A good example is Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. There are three main characters, whose names all escape me even though I read it not that long ago. Their defining characteristics are that they are all mothers in a small seaside town with children starting school. One is new in town, one is beautiful and rich, and one is outgoing with a penchant for saying exactly what she’s thinking.
It doesn’t sound all that compelling and I suppose as characters in and of themselves, they aren’t. What’s compelling about them is that together they play key roles in a terrific story.
Everyman (or Everywoman) Verging on Hero
The everyman and everywoman verging on hero are also normal, everyday people who get up every morning, eat breakfast, go to work, have relationships, eat dinner, watch television and go to bed every night knowing they’ll never be asked to save the world. Except that one day, that’s exactly what happens.
The everyman and everywoman verging on hero almost never have special skills or exciting jobs and they almost always get swept up in situations in which they aren’t expected to excel. Tsunamis, earthquakes, zombie invasions. And when it comes right down to it, special skills usually aren’t required, just a little bit – or more likely a lot – of courage.
As with the everyman and everywoman, they aren’t always memorable outside of the story they exist within. It’s not a perfect example but Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird fame is an everyman who saves the day for the black man accused of raping a white woman. In the segregationist South, it doesn’t get much more important than that.
There’s been a zillion versions of the hero and there will be a zillion more because everybody loves a hero. A hero is, of course, someone who acquires the skills to be able to save the world and then goes and gets a job which will allow this to happen on a frequent basis.
Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Dirk Pitt, Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta, so many that I can’t possibly hope to list them all.
Despite their immense numbers, creating a truly great hero is not as easy as it might sound. Added to the formula must be something more. It takes a little je ne sais quoi. X factor, for the current generation. That inexplicable, indefinable something that sets them apart from all the other hero wannabes out there. Because a hero is one thing. But a memorable hero is the ticket to book sales, movie deals and immortality.
Hero Verging on Anti-Hero
The hero verging on anti-hero wants to do the right thing but always manages to break rules, step on toes and rub people the wrong way as they get the right result. There’s almost always a dysfunctional childhood and a boss who doesn’t like them but can’t get rid of them. And if they’re men (and they often are), there’s usually a disapproving but fond ex-wife.
Harry Bosch is a great example of the hero verging on anti-hero. And so is his half-brother Mickey Haller. Michael Connelly knows how to do heroes verging on anti-heroes. Harry is the son of a prostitute who was murdered when he was a child. He went into a succession of orphanages and foster homes before joining the army and fighting in Vietnam (this is the books, of course, not the new television show, which was updated so it could be set in the current day). And Mickey Haller is a criminal defence attorney, defending people accused and usually guilty of terrible crimes. He does it because he’s good at it and because everybody is entitled to a proper defence but you also get the feeling he does it because of the one innocent person for every ninety-nine who actually did commit a crime.
The anti-hero seems to be the main character of choice these days. It’s probably not that much of a mystery. It reflects a cynicism in the wider world that sees people more interested in living their own lives and working towards individual accomplishments. If they do the right thing along the way, well, then it’s a nice by-product but it’s never really their intention.
In a recent article I wrote titled “Where Have All the Idealists Gone?”, I compiled a list of them. Katniss Everdeen. Walter White. Raymond Reddington. Jack Reacher. Captain Jack Sparrow. Emily Thorne (formerly Amanda Clarke).
Katniss Everdeen might not seem like an anti-hero, especially to those who have only watched the movies. But the books clearly portray her as someone who has no interest in being a hero. And she isn’t one. She’s a survivor. She does what she has to do and even then, she often has to be talked into it.
Jack Reacher is another anti-hero. After a couple of decades in the military, he chooses to become a wanderer. He goes wherever he wants, a deliberate choice after all the years spent being told what to do by the military hierarchy. He has no possessions. Pre-911, the only thing he carried with him was a toothbrush. Post-911, he also has a passport and an ATM card. Part of Jack’s anti-hero-ness is his unwillingness to comply with basic rules of society. He wears one set of clothes until they get too dirty and then discards them and purchases another clean set. Personally, I think he would appeal more to men than women. I’m all for a good anti-hero but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with embracing personal hygiene.
Anti-Hero Verging on Villain
The anti-hero verging on villain is just a darker version of the anti-hero or a lighter version of the villain. They are still interested primarily in themselves but they take it a step further by incorporating significant violent crimes into their bag of tricks. The two best examples are Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan.
Dr Hannibal Lecter is number 14 on the telegraph.co.uk’s list of the 50 greatest villains of literature and number 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 greatest villains in film (thanks in no small part to the inimitable Anthony Hopkins). And while he’s probably more accurately described as a villain verging on anti-hero rather than the other way around, there is something so charming and polite about him that we are nearly willing to forgive the fact that he murders people and then cannibalises them. The fact that he helps the FBI (or more accurately, he helps Clarice Starling) track down a serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs also gives him brownie points.
Dexter Morgan is another anti-hero verging on villainy. He’s a murderer. No doubt about it. But he knows there’s something wrong with him. He works hard to control his criminal urges. And he only acts on them according to a strict code: taking one life in order to save many others. Dexter’s vulnerability also contributes to his part anti-hero status. He struggles with his place in the world, he struggles with the way he relates to people around him, he struggles with the huge burden of the expectations of others. You don’t have to be a serial killer to struggle with these things; most of us struggle with them every day. And that makes Dexter if not one of us, then certainly someone like us.
Villains, genuine villains, as main characters are rare. Most writers agree that in order to keep readers reading, main characters need to be relatable. Most readers can’t relate to a villain whose aim is to kill, maim, destroy and generally disrupt the lives of the everyman and the everywoman.
Having said that, on the rare occasions when a villain is the main character, it can be extremely effective because of the rarity (although it goes without saying that it must be done well – you’re not going to have a smash hit just because you choose to do something most people don’t do).
A great example is Tom Ripley, the star of Patricia Highsmith’s five books known as the Ripliad. The author describes her creation as “suave, agreeable and utterly amoral”. It’s the “utterly amoral” that puts him into the villain category but it’s the “agreeable” that has made him so successful as a character.
Choosing to make a villain your main character instead of the antagonist means they have to be a certain kind of villain. They can’t rape and murder women and children. And if they do, you have to be able to roll back their crimes in some way. I’ve seen Patrick Bateman of American Psycho fame described as an anti-hero but he falls squarely into the villain category as far as I’m concerned. And the only reason Bret Easton Ellis was really able to get away with writing and publishing a book like that was because there was and still is a lot of confusion about whether Patrick Bateman was a serial killer or just a man struggling with violent delusions as part of a significant mental health problem.
Whatever type of main character you choose, it’s only a first step in a much longer process of developing a novel. And yet if you don’t get it right, all the steps that follow will be pointless. So make sure you get it right.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing