Don’t’cha just love when I say that. But as with most things, trusting one’s hero depends on many variables.
And while your hero’s character traits hopefully contain a mixed bag of positive and negative (nobody is all good or all bad. As Elisabeth Kubler Ross says, “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”), and sometimes true character can feel somewhat obfuscated to the reader (hopefully by intention, on your part!), you, as the author, must know these folks inside and out in order to paint them will a full palate of colors on the page.
Even though often the protagonist will veer off in directions you never would have foreseen.
Which is still all fine and good—providing once the first draft is finished, you go back in revisions and even out and develop more fully what made him act seemingly “out of character” in the first place.
Which just means fully knowing your folks by the end.
So, how do we ferret through our main characters, digging down to the bones, drawing from archetypal characters in order to fully digest the trust issue?
A few ways will help.
֎ Do you intend for readers to trust your hero?
That sounds like a rhetorical question, but in essence, it must be answered yes or no.
Most writers will answer, of course! But once you dive a bit more beneath the surface, you might find that’s not entirely the case.
A long-used device called the Unreliable Narrator becomes very effective in skilled hands. This just basically means that the narrator’s credibility is seriously compromised. Sometimes this is immediately evident, with said narrator making a false or delusional claim. Sometimes this becomes slowly apparent. And sometimes, it comes with a twist at the end.
Humbert Humbert from Lolita is most often cited, and indeed, old Humbert is a master at lying, while heralded loudly by his community as an honest man.
This one is easily seen, but for my money, Joseph Conrad effects this best in Heart of Darkness. Marlow tells us from the get go that he likes to spin yarns. And in journeying with him up the Congo in search of ivory and the mysterious Kurtz, we realize we’re really going deeply into the heart of man. By story’s end, we are so caught up in the moral corruption found in the heart of all humans, we could give a fig if Marlow has told the tale exactly.
The point being, Nabokov and Conrad masterfully intended their narrators to be unreliable. And, both worked beautifully.
֎ Do the narrator’s internal issues include some self-deception? Or a lot of it?
Because we all have some of this. Discerning exactly how much your protagonist sees himself clearly determines whether your reader can or cannot trust him. And, on which side of the hero/anti-hero scale he falls.
As a minor example, I always laugh at the study done about men and women looking at themselves in the mirror. The vast majority of women described themselves as heavier than they actually were. And, you guessed it, the majority of men described themselves as more fit.
But going a bit deeper, more recently, a study confirmed that men are more narcissistic than women, concluding that this is most likely due to gender roles learned in childhood.
The first is a small issue, the second, a larger one. But issues you can exploit with your characters either way.
Basically, it’s one who’s just a little shy of her truth, as my aunt used to say.
֎ Does she have a bias that although she admits to (or not), she doesn’t always see the results of?
For example, take Race relations in our culture today. Okay, so maybe that’s too big of a bag of potatoes!
So, let’s pare it down to one: If you’re white, do you think you have a racist bone in your body?
Of course not, you say.
Okay, let’s ask another question: If you’re a young white woman, walking alone down the street at night, and you see two young black men walking toward you wearing hoodies, do you cross the street?
Why, the answer may be, of course! That’s only prudent.
Or, is it?
Explore this with your main character, and see how she answers. Dig deep into her visceral fear and find out its true origin.
֎ Is your hero based on character archetypes?
The best ones are. And if so, you’ve just sent a signal to your reader as per the protagonist’s reliability or lack thereof.
And knowing which archetype your character fits (usually he fits into several) can help you expand and convey with few words who this person actually is.
Psychologist Carl Jung identified 12 primary types, with more of course but these 12 are the all-encompassing ones. He divided these into 3 sets of 4 types each. Each set shares a common driving source, named either Ego, Soul, and Self. Carl Golden gives a great explanation of these, and I encourage you to become familiar with them. This will help you truly hone in on who your folks are, and why they’re the way they are.
֎ Is your hero successful?
By definition, he must be, or he’s not the hero. But that doesn’t mean he lives, in the end. Many times the tragic tale concludes with the hero’s valiant death (think Maximus in Gladiator, and about a billion others). But often by way of that very death, the Grail is reached and attained, the boon received by the culture.
It also doesn’t mean that by tale’s finish, he’s completed all of the tasks he set out to do (especially if you’re writing a series). But he damn sure better have reached, achieved, etc., the main one.
If when all is said and done, however, he has failed in his Quest, then he was never the hero after all.
Even Marlow, Conrad’s unreliable narrator, gets the Ivory and finds Kurtz in the end. Although the latter was nothing as he thought, and turned his world (and the reader’s) inside out, which provided the true twist in the end. And exposed Marlow’s own self-deception for what it was.
So, some protagonists are unreliable by design, and some, by the way they unfold on your page as the story goes along. Any of those work, and everything in between, but as with all things writing, it matters only that you, as the author, know that person inside and out. And that you bring him to life as intended.
Because with all things writing, no matter the twists and turns your character takes, the strengths and foibles that come to light through the course of your story, in the final analysis, you want them to all fit together for your reader. Not all neat and tidy, but enough that in the end, your reader simply says, “Yes.”