The Good, the Bad, and the Protagonist

The agony of protagonists. Imperfections. Perceptions. Heroics. Do our characters exist as gems of virtue, only mildly flawed? Or are they hewn from the quarry of reality unashamed?

Too real, and nothing compels. Anyone defying believability unhinges that delicate suspension of disbelief. Not knowing the finer points of this tightrope walk dooms our protagonists to an indiscriminate fall to failure.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I’ve been wanting to write a book for a long time but I feel like my main character is too bad of a person to be the good guy. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but the more I think about my main character, the more I wish he had good guy standards, like not drinking, swearing, and smoking. It’s a Western, so it comes with the territory. Is there a such thing as a good guy who can truly be good? Thanks!

—Ava Gonzalez, Houston, Tex.

In lousy fiction, make your good guys as good as you want. We don’t care. And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘we.’ In good fiction, there are none good. I’m not advocating the raw, gritty, hardboiled route. Overcompensating is an endless loop, an inefficient parlor trick. Pare down the excess, whether it be toning down raunchy curses that would curl Satan’s ears or de-glorifying exaggerated acts of saintliness and kindliness that would make Jesus puke.

On to the meandering philosophical question: What makes and breaks the good of a good guy? I’ll present two protagonists and let you be the judge of the goodness of each.

Buford O. Brokelahoma

Buford strode into the bar, chest puffed out so far that it arrived a good five seconds before the rest of him did. He clenched his belt buckle, using it as a shield to ward off the sin and temptation floating around in the sordid establishment. With one hand, he supported his hefty frame while situating the uneven barstool beneath him, making sure he sat in just the right spot, avoiding any need to readjust. Couldn’t look weak here. Not in front of similar rabble, not much unlike the many foul souls he’d locked up the week prior.

A sheriff’s life wasn’t much to envy to begin with, but Buford’s pledge to chastity and the like made it downright unbearable. Not for him, but for everyone else. He grimaced at anyone who dared swear a curse. He rudely swatted cigarettes from people in mid-smoke. He made a show of ordering a tall glass of “white milk, with none of that devil’s alcohol.” He openly polished his already polished badge, noting that he wanted to make it so shiny that its glint would scare off ne’er-do-wells from ne’er-do-welling.

Jack A. Rakescrow

Rakescrow hated drinking, so he drank more to forget how much he hated it. A crumpled piece of paper lay next to his whisky glass. Six strokes, keeping count faithfully until the seventh glass. Got a little hazy after that. He was hazy to begin with, drenched in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke before he could summon the sense to order his first round.

The insufferable Sheriff Buford Brokelahoma snapped him out of his stupor. Someone’s cigarette butt pegged him in the cheek, courtesy of the Sheriff’s well-timed flick.

Shi—“ he started, but Buford’s agitated pug-like expression halted him. “S’watch what you aimin’ at, Sher’f. Been a long day.”

“I reckon. Bein’ a vigilante gotta takes it’s toll, I reckon.”

“Takes more doin’ the right thing than jus’ pretendin’. Chasin’ down mur’drurs ain’t worth riskin’ the pay, right? Keep t’them tax cheats and curfew brekkers in line and keep me to my real man’s work.”

That should have gotten more of a rise from Buford, but everyone’s attention swiftly turned to a raving drunk, more raving and drunk than the rest. He had a rusty firearm to the throat of an off-shift singer, the one who brought in more business from various hotel rooms than she did on the rickety stage here. Looked like a scuffle gone out of hand, something to do with theft. Apologies and begging weren’t cutting it.

Rakescrow hollered, just enough to get the assailant to stick out his head and see who yelled at him. Gave Rakescrow just enough room to thread a sudden bullet through the crowd and into his head. The woman retreated, silently sobbing, too shocked to shriek. The dead man was discreetly taken away as hushes seeped back into the bar.

“Damned fool nearly cut off my drinks for tonight.”

“Couldn’t’ve hit ‘em together, Jack?” goaded a sneering Buford. “They both of ‘em deserved it, God as my witness.”

“God ain’t yer witness.”

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and traded on NASDAQ Stock Market. 

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