What's a Protagonist Good For?

The central character of a story can make or break it. Sometimes breaking it is better.

In lieu of telling the entire story again, I’ll sum up: William Pearson, the protagonist of _TOTALITY: The Militiaman_, was originally a straight-ahead, unambiguous hero. This was back when I cooked up the series in 1999, before leaving it on the shelf for many years until I felt it was time to revisit.

Now? He’s a “potty mouthed Andy Griffith,” as one reader told me. My publisher loves to make posts about how William is a cosmically bad decisionmaker. And it’s true! But it was an interesting journey to get there.

Something my publisher and I went back and forth on was just how much of a bonehead William should be. In the original manuscript, he was actually worse. Part of what I changed in revision was toning down some of his obstinacy and having his companions challenge him on his decisions more.

One thing I didn’t change, though, is his capacity for beating up on himself. Ultimately, I wanted to create a character who is very flawed yet you can still root for, because you can see he’s trying to accomplish good things. It’s just that he works off of inadequate information, has an unfortunate tendency to jump to conclusions, and takes matters into his own hands a bit too readily. (Perhaps the last one there is an understatement.)

Ironically, this all came about from rereading my original draft, since I wrote it so long ago. At the time, I really thought William was doing the right thing. His actions usually blew up in his face, but he had the right idea. Rereading with time and distance, however, I realized he’s more of a menace, and so much less of a “hero.” The rewrite proceeded accordingly.

Traditionally, a story’s protagonist is the “good guy.” Of course, that’s not always the case. There are plenty of stories where the main character is an antihero, or is the actual villain, or is simply too ambiguous to be classified either way. In William’s case, he’s more of an aspiring hero. He wants to do good, but his personal background and numerous foibles lead him to make a lot of bad choices. A major element of the TOTALITY series is exploring the consequences of those choices, which will unfold a little bit in book 2 but really takes off in book 3.

In addition, book 2 gets a new POV character! William will be sharing his page time with Sasha, whom he meets early on. She is a human enslaved since childhood by the Totality, and she’s a very different character from William. I think the contrast between them makes things a lot more interesting, and hopefully you will agree, too. ;)

I actually flirted with rotating different POV characters in The Militiaman, too, but apart from a few chapters in a particular story arc, I stick with William’s perspective throughout. I decided it was important to live and breathe this world through one character for a long while, to get the reader introduced to and comfortable with it. The horizons expand with each subsequent book, an approach I decided on somewhere in the middle of book 2, I believe.

I am also here to invite readers to speculate on what kind of character William will ultimately be. It would be a pretty dull series if he didn’t change at any point. I think he’s not even the same man by the end of book 1 that he was at the beginning. He certainly won’t be the same when he meets his ultimate fate, at whatever point in the series that happens. (No, I’m not going to give it away yet.) But will he be a tragic figure? Will he redeem himself? Will he see himself become the villain? Will he retire quietly somewhere? Will he meet a grisly death right at the beginning of book 2?

There’s only one way to find out!