I was recently on a writing panel where we talked about anti-heroes, and I wasn’t entirely shocked that not one of us there could agree on a definition. I bring this up because I like to add an anti-hero element to my protagonist. For me, this anti-hero twist places the focus on one’s inner motivation rather than just creating a character opposed to the goal of the story. My anti-hero is someone who fundamentally doesn’t want to be a hero, but the situation forces his or her hand.
So in the spirit of being mean to one of my characters, I like to start right off the bat and be mean to my protagonist. So I make their motivations suspect--check. But I want to be meaner; I want to really let them have it. So maybe I throw a lack of athleticism, popularity, wit, or even talent into the mix. Now I feel good and sinister!
In Bad Unicorn, my protagonist Max Spencer suffers from such author cruelty. He’s forced to practice imaginary jump rope because the school counselor said competitive sports would damage his self-esteem. And he doesn’t want to be a hero. He’s not looking to find the magic elixir and return it to the village, or defeat the troll hiding under the bridge. He just wants to eat Pop Tarts, survive middle school, and read comic books.
Of course at some point our protagonist has to grow into something more. But if it wasn’t bad enough that some super evil baddie is looking to destroy the world, making your protagonist near-sided and asthmatic just makes everything harder, doesn’t it? Take that you protagonist you! Maybe your dog won’t come when you call him and you have the largest set of braces ever constructed! Ha!
So why do we even care about such a character? Well, it’s because we’re all probably a bit like one ourselves. When presented with the chance to defeat the bad guy at great personal risk, we might need some time to think it over. Maybe scratch out a list of pros and cons, take a long walk through the woods, or even recommend some other candidates we know of.
I like being mean to my hero right off the bat. It creates a different kind of journey and a different kind of story. But how satisfying when the protagonist decides to take a risk and become something more than they thought they were capable of. So really it's not being mean at all—more like tough love.