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How can I write a dark protagonist for whom there is no hope?


In my ongoing effort to weed out every beginner-related problem I might have before I write my novel (what do you mean? I'm not delaying at all), I have now come to a dreaded area: dark protagonists.

I once wrote an answer on SE concerning dark protagonists. I said that if you provided hints and glimpses that the protagonist was not as dark as they seemed, then all would be well. The reader would be able to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel, and continue to root for the protagonist to reach that light.

I still believe that's a solid method. It has a problem though: it deals with a character who is not entirely dark, or who IS entirely dark, but enters the light during the course of the story.

I am now dealing with a protagonist who starts out in the light, and falls to darkness over the course of the story. I can't very well offer the reader false hope that there's light at the end of the tunnel, because, well... there isn't. Things only get worse.

I know that such a dark character seriously threatens the reader's desire to keep reading about said character. I am wondering what devices or strategies others might have found to help write such a character.

Am I forced to adopt a different PoV to tell this story? Or is there some trick I can do with the character?

Note: I'm not asking how to change the character. I'm purely asking how to write such a character so that the reader will keep reading.

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2 answers


Light vs darkness is not and never had been the only theme in novels. In fact, in the simplistic sense in which it is practiced today in things like post-Tolkien fantasy novels, it is a pretty new phenomena.

Take most fairy tales, for instance, have more to do with the moral fortitude to resist the glamour of evil than they have to do with pitched battles of your wand vs. my wand.

But if resisting the glamour of evil is a strong recurrent theme, the failure to resist it is a necessary contrapuntal theme. Thus we make two masks, comedy and tragedy. And the tragic figure's downfall lies always in that failure of moral restraint.

Every heroic figure at some point is tempted from, and often strays from the path of light, only to return to it. Every tragic figure falls into the path of darkness and fails to return from it.

Light into darkness into light is a story.

Light into darkness is a story.

Darkness into light is a story.

Darkness into light into darkness is a story.

There are stories in which the protagonist stays perpetually in the light, though they seem to involve some secondary character being assisted from darkness into light. Perhaps there are stories of a perpetually dark protagonist leading a secondary character from light into darkness.

But it does seem to me that changes of state, and not a mere succession of incidents, are necessary for a story. It is one of the most frequently suggested elements of scene-building that the character should be in a different state at the end of the scene compared to the beginning. The same is surely true of stories as a whole.

If this all holds together, then the source of interest in stories is the nature of the transitions that take place. Stories are experiences. They deal in the question, what is it like to...? If the essence of tension is that we want to know what happens next, it is because we want to know what the thing that happens next is going to feel like. We don't just want to know that the bride and groom got married, we want to attend the wedding. That is the difference between the marriage notices in the paper and a romance novel.

So, yours is a light into darkness story. Your task in telling this story isn't any different from telling any other story. What is it like to transition from light into darkness? What is its texture? What are its emotions?

The challenge is, do you understand this path well enough to tell us what it is like, or at least to convince us that this is what it feels like? It isn't something that you can solve with some writing trick. It is a vision problem, not a writing problem.

There are lots of scenarios that we can conceive of. But there are only so many stories we can actually tell convincingly, because having a convincing vision of an experience is a different and more difficult thing than merely imagining that a situation could occur. Have you an eye that can see in the darkness? If so, write you story as you would write any other story and let your vision come to light.

Edit to address comments

The character who starts in the light, is tempted, falls, and then instead of turning to the light once more, delves deeper into the temptation, the darkness. The reader starts out sympathetic, certainly, but it's that conscious decision to go deeper into the darkness (and subsequent similar decisions) which I feel will push the reader away.

I think the issue here is that it implies a story that goes on past the end of the arc. I have often argued that the structure of a story is essentially moral. The protagonist is forced to face a choice between values, and makes a fundamental decision. (This is analogous at least to ideas like the mirror moment or the inmost cave.) The rest of the story from that point simply demonstrates that they have really made this choice. The choice itself is the great inflection point of the story.

Once that decision has been made and demonstrated, the story is over. They lived happily ever after. There is no more left to say.

So the moment of choice in a tragic story is that moment at which "instead of turning to the light once more, [the character] delves deeper into the temptation". After that moment of choice, "that conscious decision to go deeper into the darkness" what remains to do? Only to demonstrate that the choice has been made.

I suspect that the demonstration of the intent to turn toward the light takes a lot longer to tell than the demonstration of the intent to turn toward the darkness, which would give tragedies a different structure from comedies.

But once that decision has been made, and we have made up our minds about them, our interest in them is over. Prince Charming may be a perfectly nice guy, but we don't want to go on reading about him driving the kids to soccer practice and remembering to bring Snow White flowers on Valentines day. Story is over. Move on.

Similarly, while the dark protagonists choice is still before him, we are interested. Will he turn to the light or continue into darkness? Ah, he continued into darkness. He did not live happily ever after, he burned in hell for evermore. Story over. We don't want to read about him getting up from his bed of nails every morning and bathing in the lake of acid full of piranhas. He made his choice. His story is done. Next.

It is not the darkness of those subsequent decisions and actions that will push the reader away, but their banality and predictability. Once the decision between light and darkness is made and demonstrated, the story is over. The protagonist has been redeemed or damned, and there's the end of it. There is nothing more to see.

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This is all built on the assumption that readers read because they wish to witness change. It is my opinion that readers read (especially in today's age) to be entertained. If a character's change is going to leave readers wallowing in the depths of despair, I don't see much reason they would continue reading. They would, however, keep reading if they genuinely care about the character, despite the descent into darkness. That is what this question is about, not how to write the change itself. Thomas Myron about 2 months ago

Well then, how do you account for tragedy? How do you account for Hamlet? (Everybody dies.) Or Romeo and Juliet? (They both die.) Human life is tragic. (We all die.) Literature has always dealt with tragedy. And since life is tragic, there is every reason to care about a tragic character. We see our tragedy in theirs. There is no despite to be resolved here, therefore. Tragedy works. It always has. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

A tragedy where everyone dies is completely different from and irrelevant to a dark protagonist. Romeo and Juliet works because we care about the characters. The story ends once they die. But they are not dark or evil. I am discussing dark/evil characters. Not people who die at the end of the story. Thomas Myron about 2 months ago

So, a story about a dark/evil character where everyone lives happily ever after? I think you need to define what you mean by a dark/evil character. Do you mean the tempter or the tempted? Because the tempted has a story arc, and the tempter does not. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

The tempted. The character who starts in the light, is tempted, falls, and then instead of turning to the light once more, delves deeper into the temptation, the darkness. The reader starts out sympathetic, certainly, but it's that conscious decision to go deeper into the darkness (and subsequent similar decisions) which I feel will push the reader away. Thomas Myron about 2 months ago

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You have to accept that different readers will have differing levels of patience for this sort of character. But the universal thing that pushes every reader out of a story is characters performing actions for no good reason. Conversely, as long as there's a sympathetic justification for some action, most readers will nod along and say, "Well, I can't blame them for choosing that." We will swallow a fair amount of moral ambiguity or tragedy when we're forced to admit that we might do the same thing in their shoes.

That needs to be one of your goals for portraying this character. Focus on their motivation for each action, and let it be something important to them. As long as we buy their reasoning, we'll accept their actions.

As far as pulling the reader through difficult-to-accept sequences, you can rely quite a bit on morbid curiosity. A tantalizingly dark scene will make them think "I can't believe that just happened!" followed by "What's going to happen next?" This is why cringe-worthy comedy works; we hate to watch it, but we can't stop because we want to see what the victim of the joke will put themselves through.

When was the moment you realized Thanos was going to sacrifice his daughter Gamora to gain the Soul Stone? For me it was probably a minute or two before it happened. And the next two minutes had my eyes glued to the screen because I was hoping for rescue but expecting defeat. I was wondering, "Would he really...?" And that was a powerful question.

In both of the previous paragraphs, the driver of tension was questioning the character's commitment to their goals. It's a matter of stakes and consequences, just like any character motivation. Make sure you are expressing those through your writing and you'll be fine.

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+1 for the Thanos example. That drove it home quite nicely I think. Something to think about for sure. Thomas Myron about 2 months ago