Updates and Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.12/13.13/13.14


Catch-all catch-up post today while I’ve got some mental time to focus. Warning: this is longer since I’ve got so much to catch up on.

First to announce that I have finished my line edit pass on my novel and will be posting the call for beta readers within the next few days, so if you are interested, watch for that post and the instructions for getting access.

Next up, I’ve had a lot of thoughts running around in my brain about trustworthy writers and a community supporting them, so I’ll be kicking off a series on that soon.

Third – reaction posts for Writing Excuses.

13.12 – Q/A on Heroes, Villains, and Main Characters

I figured for the Q/A, I’d just answer the questions.

  • How do you make planned power increases not seem like you’re making it up on the spot?
    • Foreshadowing. With sufficient foreshadowing (this could mean as much or as little as needed), pretty much any planned power increase/superpower/level up/character change can be revealed and it not feel like you’re making things up on the spot.
    • For me, the biggest way to know if I need to fix my foreshadowing is to give it to readers.
  • What do you do when your villain is more interesting/engaging than your hero?
    • I think this may be more a problem of a particular type of story. I tend to write character/relationship stories more than idea/plot stories. I think idea/plot stories can suffer from having boring heroes/main characters because the story isn’t about them, but about the problem they have to solve.
    • This is where I think Mary’s approach of using the nested MICE quotient can solve this issue – if your villain is becoming more interesting, maybe you need to work out a character story for your hero so that there is something interesting about them that doesn’t require require them solving the plot.
  • How do you know when a character is unnecessary and needs to be removed from the story, or killed off in the story?
    • Do they show up in more than one scene and do they do more that just deliver exposition/news.
    • I had this show up during my cut edit in Jan/Feb. I had a character I thought I could cut from the first scenes because I thought I only had her delivering exposition, but had forgotten she showed up later as a complication to be exploited by my antagonist against my other mains. Removing her early removed my ability to leverage her later when I needed her as a way to ratchet up the pressure.
  • What tricks do you use when you want the reader to mistakenly believe a character is a hero, rather than a villain?
    • Haven’t done this, so can’t comment.
  • Which is more fun for you: creating a villain, or creating a hero?
    • Neither – as I’ve mentioned before, I have a really had time thinking of my characters that way. I much prefer labels of protagonist and antagonist. And what is most fun for me is figuring out how those two will relate in their relationship – friends, enemies, family, etc.
  • How many side characters can you reasonably juggle in a novel?
    • Me at my current level? – 3
  • What are the drawbacks to making your villain a POV character?
    • Have only writing protag and side character POVs, so can’t comment.
  • If your villain doesn’t show up until late in the story, how do you make their eventual appearance seem justified?
    • If I reword this as “If  your secondary antagonist shows up late,” then I can answer, and the answer is the same as the first – foreshadowing. In Betrayed, I have some very big consequences affecting the world that resulted from the actions of this secondary antagonist and they show very early – second scene.
    • The main characters were aware of the results, but didn’t know anything about this character. When my secondary antag shows up at 2/3rds through and all those consequences get tied back to this person, my readers now have a name to go with all that stuff they’ve been reading about.
  • How do you get readers to like a character who is a jerk?
    • I tried this in my trunk novel The Liegiver, but I don’t think I did it well, so I don’t think I’m yet qualified to answer.

 13.13 – Character Voice

I feel like this is a topic that comes up a lot on the podcast. It isn’t something I normally think about – when writing or reading – but I can see how it can be effective. One of my level-up moments came when reading Brandon’s Wax and Wayne series – Wayne has a very defined character voice and it works to set him apart, but what I really like is Brandon uses this voice to inject humor without needing to “tell jokes”. The humor comes only from how Wayne sees others.

I want to get better as this.

13.14 – Character Nuance

This podcast goes hand-in-hand with something I learned while listening to Robert McKee’s Story. I have this from my notes I took while listening to McKee:

  • Character and Plot are one and the same
    • function of plot structure is to provide more and more choices for the character to make under pressure
    • function of character is to make choices that seem rational to their internal self within that structure.
  • Character design begins with two primary aspects: characterization and true character
    • characterization: sum of all observable qualities
    • true character is behind this mask of characterizations – who they are really
    • KEY TO TRUE CHARACTER: true character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma

What McKee said is just a restatement of what I think Amal and Mary expressed – contradiction within a character is not necessarily contradiction if you can show how that contradiction plays out within the choices that character makes within the framework of the plot.

I think a lot of what Brandon and Maurice said point towards the second main bullet – the hats we were and the way we interact are part of those characterizations. How Maurice talks with other writers versus family in Jamaica are observable characteristics. But who they actually are would come from the choices they’ve made under pressure. Example from Brandon’s life that he’s talked about on the podcast – he’d written a dozen novels before his first one sold and spent his evenings writing while working the desk at a hotel. That pressure of having failure after failure and yet choosing to continue on showed some of the true character that is Brandon Sanderson.

The other reaction I have is to the homework – and a reminder that while “personality test” are fun, Myers-Briggs/Sorting Hat/Color Code-type stuff doesn’t really hold water when studied empirically. One that does have scientific backing is the IPIP-NEO test of the Five Personality Domains. And honestly, if you could go through and at least figure out where on the spectrum in each of the five domains your character is, you’d be in good shape.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.11 – Writing Secondary Characters Charlaine Harris

First immediate reaction upon listening to the episode – THAT is a wonderful accent.

Second, I was a struck by the idea that secondary characters were mostly to be considered within the course of a series, that they gave you someone to promote or focus on in later books.

I don’t think that was the intention and I very well may be misunderstanding some of the episode. It just seemed to me that most of the conversation about writing secondary characters centered on the idea of using them else where in a story universe. Inner me reacted, What about all those stories that are stand alone? Are secondary characters not important there?

After I calmed my inner self down, I tried to go bigger picture. When I’ve worked on secondary characters, do I think of them in terms that make them bigger than just the scenes they appear in? Do they have more presence than just delivering that line or doing that action? I think part of that has to do with “backstory” and part with how much impact they have on the plot.

But for me, secondary characters are easiest to write when I think about how they interact with other characters. Unless they get their own POV, secondary characters are only going to be seen when my POV character is also present. If I were to eventually 3rd person omniscient, then this might not apply, but for all the stories I’ve done, this has been true. So, for those moments of interaction, what can I do to make that scene more engaging?

Part of that comes down to the underlying craft of making sure that scenes are always pulls double or triple duty – if you work to make the scenes impactful, I think the secondary characters benefit from this same work.

I go back to Maurice’s approach from the previous episode – if the character get’s a name, they get worked up and fleshed out. I think I do something similar. There’s something about giving a character a name that almost demands that they have a backstory, that they be thought of as characters.

Which brings us to our question of the day: What secondary characters from stand-alone works do you most remember?

Let us know below.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.09 – Quick Characterizations and 13.10 – Handling a Large Cast

Two reactions in one today as I struggle to catch up. One of the few eternal truths I’ve believe I’ve encountered is that I will always think I can’t be busier and yet, another month arrives to prove me wrong. Quick Characterizations and Handling a Large Cast.

Of the two, I gravitated more to the discussions of the Large Cast episode, not so much because I write sprawling stories with hundreds of characters, but because there was a lot of pristine talk of craft and process. I am a process nerd (as evidenced from my series on Productivity Methods) and so hearing how other people do things is great – it allows me to pick and choose from established methods that others have found and iterate to my heart’s content. Brandon opening up about how to handle a cast of thousands was delightful and I loved how eager and breathless both Mary and Amal were at hearing the numbers that he threw out. Seriously: 2400 characters in the Wheel of Time? Holy crap!

Of course that made me go back and start figuring out how many named characters I have in my novel – which, including the epilogue, is 12. Which is staggering! I had no idea it was that many. Granted, many of them are only in a few scenes and really are background characters that will get moments in future books in the series, but I really was surprised to find I had that many.

I also very much liked hearing how Maurice takes the time to give full characterizations to anyone he names. I don’t know that I’ll take that just yet, but I may need to in my next story because I want that story to be much more character driven.

Using spreadsheets to track character movements and wikis to coordinate continuity and character sheets so “roll play up” a character just confirms to me that no one approach is “right” for writing. If it works for you, use it. If not, look around to steal from others.

I find in my own work that I am more like Mary – I consciously think about how many characters I can handle with my “hands” on stage and not get too cluttered. As a reader, I hate scenes that have 5 or 10 characters all in room doing things because I can’t hold them all in my head at once. So, unconsciously, that’s how I write as well.

For the Quick Characterizations episode, I really enjoyed the idea of finding an verbal “silhouette test” to do with characters. In my current work which I’m revising again (line edits – joy!) I think I can safely say that all of my characters would pass a silhouette test with regards to word choice and personality. I think I even was able to make sure I described them as visually distinct too. But this wasn’t something that I arrived at by choice – another of those unconscious approaches because I’d seen it done in other fiction. I’m looking forward to using the silhouette exercise in combination with Maurice’s character sheets in my next book to see how that flows together.

The other point I like was Brandon’s “peekaboo” moments where he said he allows a side character to have a moment to pop out of the rest of the story and do something completely “them” in that moment. I personally can’t think of specific moments from his fiction that I remember off hand, but as I’m reading/re-reading, I’ll be watching for them to see how they affect my judgement/reaction to a character.

That’s all for now.

What do you do to quickly introduce characters and make them pop on the stage? Any particular differences in your approach to handling a cast – large or small – that differed from the podcasters? Drop a note in the comments below!


The Sea of Inventory and Writing

A quick random thought that I had tonight as I work thorough line edits on Betrayed. I just completed my 10% cut last month and once I started working on my synopsis document, I realized that my prose showed the scars of all the chopping I had done. Which wasn’t surprising – while I had tried to fix as I went, the priority was on killing words, not being pretty.

So, I started a rapid line level edit fixing bad words, making sure the scenes flow nicely, correcting pacing, and doing some general prettifying of words.

I’m less than four chapters in and I’ve already cut another 600 words. In the grand scope of things, at that rate, I’ll cut another 2% or more. It was murder to cut 10% and now, without almost no effort, more is flying off.

As I sat marveling at how this was happening I was reminded of a concept I learned from my Lean Implementer course. Background: Lean manufacturing/business principles grew out of the Toyota Production System that transformed them from small Japanese car producer to the largest car manufacturer in the world.

One of the principles taught in the course was the idea of the Sea of Inventory.

The Sea of Inventory posits that if you overproduce, you get so concerned with the product  you are mired in that you can’t see the wastes in your process. So one of the first goals of any production system is to eliminate overproduction and reduce the depth of your “sea”. As you do, your “rocks” of waste become more and more obvious and can be targeted easily. And the more you reduce overproduction, moving closer to just-in-time production, the more waste you expose.

Image showing an boat floating on water representing level of inventory, over hidden rocks representing various types of process waste, such as breakdowns, rejects, supplier delays, transport delays, etc.
I told you it was hastily drawn.

The reason producers tend to keep the sea high is because when we see stuff, we immediately assume that all must be fine – wastes are out of sight and therefore out of mind.

In writing, I think this idea can be a big side benefit of doing a 10% cut. Yes, there are craft reasons for doing the cut practice such as the creation of better habits which I believe almost any writer could benefit from. But a byproduct of the cut is that it reveals wastes in your writing – you lower the Sea of Words and now the weak word choices, bad pacing, redundancies, and sloppy sentences become more obvious because there is less padding around them. You expose them to your internal editor’s scalpel.

And thus the cutting continues.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.08 – Making Characters Distinctive

Flaws, quirks, attitudes, and attributes – what makes a character distinctive?

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟

Usefulness to me right now: 🌟 🌟 🌟


The podcasters started right off the bat talking about the thing I personally thought was the least useful for promoting character distinctiveness – flaws.

And again, I think this is because of personal preference.

When I think of my family members or friends, and I think about what makes one distinct from another, I don’t think about what I don’t like about them, or what I think they fail at doing. To me and the way I was raised, that feels overly and uselessly judgmental.

But the more the conversation on the cast went, the more I could see how flaws and associated quirks do make my characters distinct.

There was one particular comment that changed my thinking and that was where the podcasters noted the difference between a handicap and a flaw. Characters can have handicaps, and those handicaps can impact the story and cause obstacles, but the character needs to have more defining them beyond that handicap. Flaws, quirks, personalities, and attitudes are all things that extend that definition out.

This will be a good podcast to stew about as I prepare to start my next story pre-writing exercises in a couple of weeks.

Today’s reaction feels a little muted to me – maybe it’s rustiness from not doing them for a couple of weeks.

How do you make your characters distinct?

Updates and a Return to Blogging

First, let my start out by saying I’M DONE!

<insert dancing.gif>

My cut revision to remove 10% of the words from my first novel has been completed. My target final word count was 98,792. I finished at one word below target. Cutting 11,000 words from a story that I already felt was reasonably solid has taught me a lot about concrete writing and about removing redundancy. If you’re a writer and haven’t yet tried doing an extensive cut, I recommend it. From a craft perspective, it has already changed the way I write, and made it for the better.

This is also the point where I tease that I will be asking for beta readers of the completed cut to make sure I haven’t gone too far and ruined what I had. So be watching for a post recruiting beta readers.

Up next, for the next two weeks will be business related writing – I need summaries, queries, and bios built as I start sending this book out for representation. And I’ll be returning to blogging on the series I have planned – writers productivity, mechanical keyboards, and podcast reactions.

And most especially towards the idea of what constitutes a trustworthy writer and what I can do to foster a community of them.

So, expect a few more posts over the next few weeks as compared to the recent past.

SITREP – 2018-02-19

So I apologise for missing last week’s reaction post. I’ll be missing this week’s too as I’m on a self imposed deadline to complete my 10% cut revision of my novel by Thursday.

Fingers crossed – I’ve only got 5 chapters left to do.

At that point I’ll be putting out the call for another round of readers while I prep summary, synopsis, pitch, and query letters.

So if you’d like a chance to provide feedback regarding my novel, keep your eyes peeled.

For those who alpha read for me before, I’d like to have you read again of possible.


My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.05 – Villain, Antagonist, Obstacle

After what felt like an episode that wasn’t for me, this one fell much more into my wheelhouse. Villains, antagonists, and obstacles.

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

This topic continues the discussion that main crew had going about heros/protagonists/main characters and quite obviously was recorded at the same session.

The humor played into that fact. And with how easily they were referring to an episode from “weeks” ago. It’s not like the podcasters make any big secret about doing multiple shows in a session, but this episode it seemed especially noticable.

And I like that – I like moments when the wizard is a bit visible behind the curtain. It reminds me that people who I admire and respect aren’t perfect and let’s me be a little more gracious with myself when I don’t pull something off as smoothly as I might want to.

Self compassion aside, I loved this episode for the topic it covered.

In my reaction to the heros episode, I mentioned that I have a dislike for using that term to describe my main character. But I will admit that this episode might be changing my mind. I really like the definitions they came up with for the three “opposite” roles and it’s changed how I think of the roles of hero, protagonist, and main character.

Here are my particular paraphrases of those definitions:

  • obstacle: a person, situation, or event that blocks or opposes the desire of the hero/protagonists/main character
  • antagonist: a character who actively works against the hero/protagonist/main character and/or competes with them for their desire.
  • villain: antagonist who is actively evil

It’s the villain one that impacts me the most on my thinking about heros. I have no issues with how a villain is described in the episode, even though “evil” isn’t a hard and fast trait. We feel like we know it when we see it, but it is a difficult metric to quantify. But in my subconscious, it makes sense: that’s what a villain is.

Combine that with the hero episode where the podcasters posit the question of when should you (in storytelling) have the hero, the protagonist, and the main character all be the same, and when are they different.

Per that episode, the hero is the one who takes heroic action. Again, heroic action isn’t hard and fast – but just like I grok “evil” within the context of villain, stated this way I understand what heroic action would mean within the course of any particular story that I tell.

The other thing that I like is that I can have multiple characters take heroic action for different things, in different scenes, and in different amounts.

I’m not limited to one hero, one villain. And that may be why I have a hard time with referring to the main character as the hero. That concept just doesn’t fit for the kinds of stories I like to tell.

Example time.

Let’s break out Star Wars: A New Hope just because.

During the course of the film, no less than 4 characters take heroic action and could be considered heros in that light.

  • Leia never breaks under torture or duress, but maintains her secret knowledge of the rebel base in spite of pending death.
  • Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to ensure that Vader and company are distracted enough to let the Falcon escape.
  • Han returns to a suicide fight in an undermanned freighter, risking getting blown out of the sky to help a friend.
  • Luke stays in the trench and risks his life after all previous pilots doing the same have been killed.

Only one of these heros was also the main character of the film.

So with this same idea in play, I think it really does come down to what type of story is being told to figure out who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is and if these roles even make sense in the course of storytelling.

For me, I like my heros less iconic and I like my antagonists less villainous, but I definitely have a better feel for using these ideas in my fiction.

Incidentally, that brings me to my final thought. I think the main antagonist of Star Wars: A New Hope was Han Solo. Granted, the villains of the film are Tarkin and Vader. But I think Han is closer to the true role of antagonist.

He actively opposes the protagonist’s (Luke) desire on most every front – he mocks Luke’s desire to buy a ship, he refuses to give into Luke’s desire to rescue anybody, he doesn’t let Luke grieve (Come on, kid). He competes with Luke for Leia’s perceived affections. He confronts Luke and tries to dissuade him from going to battle against the Empire. It is only at the end that Luke overcomes Han by attacking his cowardice and convinces Han to return to the fight.

To me, that all says antagonist.

Please – argue it out in the comments below. I’d like to see what you come with.

Ergodox EZ – 1 Month

I was shocked last week when I started doing the calculations and realized that very soon, my 1 month post was going to be due for the Ergodox EZ report-out.

I’m actually starting this draft on my standard board at home because the hassle of carrying the Ergodox EZ to and from work got a bit much. Moreover, if I brought it home, I used it EXCLUSIVELY which kinda flew in the face of my plans to use it at work and maintain some semblance of proficiency with a standard board at night and on the weekends.

Let that in no way be considered a sign that my enjoyment of my newest ergonomic treat has lessened. On the contrary, the longer I go, the more I miss not having it when I have to write anything. I prefer it everywhere and everywhen.

Hands Apart

This holiday season, as a reward to our kids for being excellent students, we purchased a Nintendo Switch as our family gaming console.

If you aren’t familiar with the Switch, it uses a pair of controllers called Joy-Cons to control the on-screen action. These can be slid into the sides of the device for mobile play, slipped into a grip to impersonate a regular game controller, or used with one in each hand – my favorite way to use them.


You can sit however you like and put your hand however they are comfortable. Playing racing games with one hand next to my leg and the other cradling my head is delightful – it reminds me all of all the time I’ve spent imagining what driving an actual car with a joystick might be like. I’m sure it would be better.

What does that have to do with keyboarding?

Typing on the Ergodox EZ is basically the same idea.

As I’ve gotten more adept with a split board, I find that my brain relaxes just a bit more when my hands are apart then together. This is likely placebo, but it elicits a different kind of mental state when I’m focused than when using a regular keyboard.

I love it.

It keeps my shoulders loose, my head more upright, and my hands happy. Pretty much all pain, discomfort, and stress have disappeared, especially during marathon typing sessions.

Hands apart takes a little bit to get used to, and even now I’ll get a moment’s hesitation where my brain has to remember that even though my hands aren’t right next to each other, they are still doing the same task – typing.

The first bit, when you spread things apart, it’s like my brain interpreted that as my hands doing two different things. But just like using a mouse in one hand and WASD on the other eventually turns into “gaming – shooter”, having the hands split becomes just “typing.”

Adjusting Things

I love that I do all these micro adjustments throughout the day.

Forearm feeling a bit strained? Lets increase the tenting angle (i.e. how far tipped up the center of each side is). Right thumb stretched – whoops, the angle of my chair isn’t quite right, lets move that right board over a smidge and add a twist – bingo.  Hmm – that key stroke for getting in layer 2 feels off – lets swap it with the key next to it.

Every little thing helps and makes it more personal and more, me. And as an engineer and writer, I accept that there is nothing “perfect”. I don’t agonize and waste time deciding if the layout is perfect or the ergonomics of my desk are exact. Instead, iteration is the key. Small adjustments, sustained over time. It’s basically the same idea as Toyota’s lean principles.

As for layers and layout, I’ve officially declared version 1.0 of my setup. The configurator just makes it so easy to play and swap whenever I want, so expect this to continue to evolve.


I’ve spent a lot of time in this and the other posts talking about how the Ergodox works and what I like, but not a lot on what it’s done for my writing.

So far, the effect is muted. My current project is doing a cut edit to try to remove 10% of my existing word count. That means a lot of scrolling, clicking, and deleting.

Having the delete and backspace keys under single digit (thumb) is glorious. And having Ctrl-Z (undo) right there with them means that a lot of the process looks like me gaming or doing graphics work – hand on mouse and keyboard.

I am rather looking forward to my next project where I’ll get to start drafting again and see how long I can type without fatigue. I imagine the board will help, but I haven’t had much chance to test it yet.


The one big negative I can say is that I have plateaued in my progress with speed and accuracy, and I freely admit, it’s me.

My daily use is fine and I don’t have any issues with the board. But I’m at that stage now where familiarity only takes me so far. If I want to get REALLY good at it, deliberate practice is the only thing that’s going to work.

And I’m not surprised by this. Switching to Colemak was exactly the same thing – eventually, I could only be so good without buckling down and forcing myself to do the hard stuff – accuracy drills, speed tests, transcription practice, etc.

Where the Ergodox is going to be different and more challenging is in how the other powers mesh with it.

The first thing I’m going to start deliberately practicing (and indeed, started already) is using the mouse control via the keyboard (see layer 1 of my map). There is a very clear connection with my right hand stress and mouse use now that I’ve gotten this board, which is surprising because I’d already thought I’d eliminated that as a source.

But, lo and behold, I can feel it when I do lots of mouse swapping. I think the Ergodox lowered my overall threshold and now that the stress of typing isn’t there, the mouse use shows. So, in an effort to limit it, I’m going to work the keyboard more.

I know it will never replace a dedicated point device, but for 80% of my mouse use, better navigation through keyboard and keyboard mouse control will be sufficient, so that’s what I’m going to start on first.

Only the First…or Fourth…whatever

The Ergodox will definitely NOT be my last mechanical keyboard. Which I think is dead-at-odds with what I had stated when this whole thing began. Granted, a new purchase will not be soon – next year at the earliest – but I love the split keyboard so much I want something smaller and more portable to take with me on trips and to use at home. I find myself leering at pictures of them, trying decide which I will eventually get.

I know this also flies in the face of my stated goal with keeping up on regular standard boards. I think I’ll just work those moments in throughout the day instead of dedicating my evenings and weekends to them. Right now, I can go for nearly a week on the Ergodox full time, and 2 minutes on a regular keyboard is all I need to get back into the groove. If I just spend that responding to an email or journaling at lunch, I’ll be fine.

And I know that getting one of these boards will require that I learn how to deal with firmware and setting up a configuration compiler and computer stuff I said I wasn’t going to deal with, and QMK and custom maps and ordering keycaps and soldering. Just ignore that for now – that’s all in the future.

I mean, it’s not like buying mechanical keyboards is at all compulsive.

I can stop any time I like. They’re just tools. They’re useful, that’s all. I don’t have a problem – you have a problem.

No, I don’t need an intervention. I promise.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.04 – Protagonists Who Aren’t Sympathetic

So, there is always the possibility of stumbling when you’re trying something new and for me this is the episode where things just didn’t work. I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t – perhaps for the same reason books sometimes don’t work: I’m not the target audience.

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now: 🌟

The discussion was lively and the new guest host Valynne Maetani was fine. But it’s possible the subject matter just wasn’t for me. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t yet tried to write, or even felt the desire to write, an unsympathetic protag. In fact, I’ve have hard time writing an antagonist or villain that isn’t sympathetic in some facet.

So, my reactions are going to focus more on what I could take away from the episode rather than riffing on anything in particular the episode itself said.

Brandon spoke again about his “sliders” or “knobs” analogy with regards to protagonists – you can make them likable, competent, and/or active, with levels of each varying from character to character. So, I’ve been trying to think of different protags that I like and seeing what levels their various sliders were set to.

In Person of Interest, John Reese starts out very much as hyper-competent, but not active (has to be pressured into doing the work) and not terribly likable. We find out his past is checkered with darkness and not nice things. As the series goes, those levels change. In the media I consume, he would be the closest to being an unsympathetic character that I personally enjoy. And in reality, he’s only partially the protag – it’s definitely a team protagonist and John is balanced by Harold who is competent in a different realm, likable, and active. If you haven’t seen the show, none of that likely makes sense, but oh well.

In the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, perhaps Sam Vimes is – to an extent – unsympathetic in his first appearance in Guards! Guards! A world-weary drunkard, Sam though is inherently honorable, as the book shows him to be – he isn’t unsympathetic through any real fault of his own except his drinking. Everything else is somewhat circumstantial – his life isn’t one of ease, so he’s had to grow hard enough to deal with it, but isn’t in himself hard. In fact, the whole point of his growth throughout the series centers on the fact that he doesn’t let his honor or basic character be compromised through eventual marriage, money, prestige, or rank. So again, not what I’d call unsympathetic.

Where have I seen unsympathetic characters work well? In making a very unlikable antagonist.

Steve (Edward Norton’s character) in the remake of The Italian Job is wonderfully awful. He manages to be unlikable, relatively un-active – it’s even a plot point as they make him re-active – and he’s not overwhelmingly competent. And every time I watch that film, I enjoy seeing him get it in the end. Ed Norton did spectacular in that role and it’s part of why I like watching him in other roles.

I think the big take-away for me would be similar to any advice about writing something new – consume it first to make sure you know how it works. If you’re going to write unsympathetic protagonists, be reading and consuming media that use them. Learn how those feel before trying to go down that path as a writer.

I’m quite convinced I would muck it up as I don’t consume media that uses unsympathetic protagonists, so I don’t know why they work. They aren’t something I particularly like and so don’t particularly care to understand.

Which is why I enjoy Writing Excuses so much – they give plenty of opportunities for writers of all stripes to find something useful for them. So, while I may not be in the target audience, perhaps you would be.

What unsympathetic protagonists have you enjoyed? Perhaps I’m just missing out on them. Share below in the comments.

Also, if you’re listening along and want to share you own reactions to the episode, feel free to drop them in!