Article of the Month
c. 2002 by Alicia Rasley
I called this "Troublemakers" because our characters have to be
willing to make trouble-- trouble for themselves, trouble for their
friends, and trouble for the world. Yes, the good guys as well as the
bad guys. That's because our characters have to make a difference in
their world, and making a difference means making trouble.
Yep. Trouble. It's trouble to change-- because we mostly don't want to
change. It troubles us to have to learn things we don't want to know
(like that we're being cheated by our employer) or to realize we've
fallen short or to figure out that we need to improve.
Okay, maybe it's only ME who has trouble with change! But I don't think
so. Often when I ask my students what their protagonist wants most, they
say, "She wants things to stay the same! She likes the status quo!" So I
figure that many of us-- and many of our protagonists-- resist change
because it's scary, it's disruptive, and it's too much trouble.
But change is how we grow. And unfortunately, we seldom change unless we're forced into it by some event (or three years of therapy, but the
external event is much cheaper!). In fiction, this "change opportunity"
is usually provided by the external plot, and is frequently perceived as
negative by the protagonist, at least at first. (They'd probably be much
happier about that earthquake if they realized it wasn't a disaster, but
a "change opportunity".)
Now our job as authors is to provide our characters with the opportunity
to change, and this happens when we put them in trouble. It also helps
if we make them ready for trouble, like, say, Indiana Jones--
innovative, resourceful, and risktaking. But it's often more fun for the
reader (who, almost by definition, prefers vicarious trouble to the
actual thing!) to have a protagonist who tries to avoid trouble and in
doing so, just gets deeper and deeper into it.
Let me illustrate these two varying approaches with a couple famous
Oedipus. This is the example I pull out whenever my college students groan about how boring the classics must be (they don't actually know, as they haven't -read- them, you see :). Oedipus is worse, or better, than a soap opera character. During the course of the hour or so of the plot, he
learns or experiences all this:
1) His kingdom of Thebes is in drought because of a terrible injustice
that has not been remedied, and Oedipus decides only he can remedy it
because he's the only one in town with any brains to figure out
2) He's king of Thebes only because the previous king was murdered, and
no one ever investigated because they preferred the newly arrived Oedipus
3) His wife Jocasta knew about the murder, as she's the widow of the old
king, but sort of never mentioned it because she really wanted Oedipus's
hot bod. :)
4) The old king had been cursed to be killed by his own son.
5) Jocasta also knew this, and, well, had a son, but that son couldn't
have done it, because the king had the son killed.
6) Oedipus himself remembers going to the Delphic oracle and hearing that
he, in an amazing coincidence, was fated to kill his father, just like
the poor murdered baby of the former Theban king! Wow! What ARE the odds?
7) Oedipus also remembers abandoning his own family, the ruling family of
Corinth, just on the other side of the mountain, so that he would not
fulfill that terrible curse and kill his daddy.
8) And come to think of it, there was that weird incident right after
that, when he was on the road into Thebes, and some fancy fella in a
coach forced him into a ditch, and he hit the old fancy fella, and the
guy died, and it was pretty awful, only then he came into Thebes and
solved the riddle of the sphinx who was holding the city hostage, Oedipus
being the best riddlesolver in his graduating class, and everyone gave
him a big parade, and the newly widowed queen demanded his hand in
marriage, and you know, before he knew it, he was king, and he kind of
forgot about that old dead fancy fella.
9) Hmmm... Jocasta is starting to act sort of funny, and the local
prophet is saying all sorts of gloomy things about doom and fate and
curses, and this guy comes in and says that that little king baby? Well,
he was SUPPOSED to kill it because the old king ordered it, but he just
couldn't bring himself to do it, so he just left the baby on the
mountainside-- on the CORINTH side. And the little baby's ankles had
been pierced by the king, so there'd be scars.
10) Oops. Wait. Oedipus HAS scars on his ankles! (Cue Twilight Zone theme
song.) Jocasta is nowhere to be found. No. Wait. It couldn't be.
11) Jocasta is his wife. Jocasta is his mother. His children are his
siblings. His father is... his victim. He is... his own stepfather?
12) He then tries to kill Jocasta, who has already offed herself, thus
sparing him yet another royal murder, and then he blinds himself (thus
creating a paper topic for 50,000 English majors a year-- "Oedipus's
Blindness-- The Seer Who Would Not See"). And then he goes into exile in
the desert (and in the next installment, founds the great city of
Well, let's just say that "Trouble" is Oedipus's middle name.
What's fascinated readers of this play for two millennia (including
Aristotle) is that Oedipus ASKED for trouble. He walked right up and
grabbed trouble by the throat. He was bumping along pretty well, happy
in marriage, beloved by his constituents, on Nightline discussing foreign policy with Ted Koppel every month, and nothing but that pesky drought to cause him trouble...
but there is that drought, that external "change opportunity". And when
he finds out that the drought was caused by a mysterious murder, well,
he's off and running. Mystery is his passion. (He's got a whole shelf
devoted to Agatha Christie.) He's the riddlesolver, remember? He beat
the Sphinx! And he's the one his friends call as a lifeline when they're
on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because even if he doesn't know the
answer, he can puzzle it out.
So Oedipus jumps into trouble with both feet. He wants trouble. The
status quo is fine, but, you know, a little boring. He's getting sort of
slack, sitting up there on the throne and in Ted's studio, making grand
pronouncements about problems he figured out years ago. This drought,
this mystery, hey, that's something new and exciting. He can't wait to
start his investigation, and if Jocasta and that stupid prophet Tiresias
don't like it, it's just because they don't know how to have fun.
Oedipus is an example of the enthusiastic troublemaker. He seeks out
trouble, or if trouble finds him, he rises immediately to the occasion
and meets it halfway. No amount of cautionary warnings from
conservatives can keep this guy down. Even before the trouble starts,
he's primed for it. He's got all the necessary ingredients-- a sharp
mind, self-confidence, curiosity, resourcefulness, lots of contacts, a
badge, constitutional powers of search and seizure (heck, he wrote the
damned thing), and impulsiveness mixed with intense focus. He is a
natural-born troublemaker, and finally he's encountered a Trouble worthy
of his abilities. Go for it, Oedipus! Get that trouble!
Next up: Hamlet. You remember Hamlet. His royal dad also got murdered by a family member. (Being a monarch is a dangerous proposition!) And Hamlet also is tapped to investigate and avenge this crime... only Hamlet? Uh, he doesn't want to.
He's, like, got to go back to the university soon, and besides, he's melancholy, and, you know, melancholy students, they just want to stay in their dorm room and smoke dope and read Nietzsche and write bad poetry in ode to that cheerleader who sits in front of them in Organic Chem class and gives them that perky but impersonal smile whenever she borrows a pencil. Hamlet really doesn't DO investigation and revenge. He READS about it, sure, in lit class, and he's got the Revenge video game and is on the third (most difficult) level... but he doesn't, like, you know, do dangerous things in real life. You know, murderers... well, they MURDER. And he doesn't really want to be killed, even if sometimes in his poetry he speaks of "my dark mistress Death". It's not like he really means it. He really just wanted to get published in the Wittenburg University lit mag, and you can judge by its title (Campus Corpses) what its editorial slant is-- Death sells,
you know? He doesn't actually DO death.
Anyway, Hamlet is an example of the reluctant troublemaker, the one who
has to be dragged kicking and screaming into trouble. :)
So here's Hamlet-- the reluctant troublemaker. The regretful troublemaker.
Hamlet has to -think- before he makes trouble. He's an analytical type.
He has to gather evidence, evaluate options, figure out possible
consequences, seek advice, hire a focus group, read Consumer Reports....
he's not indecisive. He just elevates decision-making to a full-time
So look at how he responds to the "call to adventure". He's home from
college, moping around because his beloved dad just died, and resenting
his new stepfather Claudius, also known as his old uncle-- dad's brother,
who somehow got mom to marry him within a month of her widowing. Dad
appears to Hamlet one night, and says he was murdered by Claudius and
that a good son would avenge this terrible crime.
Hamlet wants to do what's right. But... but is this the right thing to
do??? Maybe he dreamed this ghost. Maybe the ghost is a demon. Maybe
it's dad really, but dad is mistaken. Maybe... he maybes himself into
immobility. He just knows he can't do anything, can't take any action,
until he does more research.
So he sets about discovering the truth. That's a good heroic quest, only
things keep going wrong. He alienates his girlfriend, then sort of
accidentally kills her father. She can't take it and commits suicide.
He acts so crazy even his mom is thinking of having him committed, and
Claudius secretly arranges to have him killed-- and when Hamlet figures
this out, two of his untrustworthy friends end up dead instead.
Finally he does finally make his choice and take his vengeance, but he's put it
off so long that instead of a nice clean revenge murder, it ends up a
massacre. Yes, Claudius is killed, but so is the girlfriend's brother,
mom, and Hamlet. Oh, and Denmark ends up being taken over by another
prince, since most everyone in the palace is bleeding to death on the
In fact, by putting off trouble, Hamlet just makes more and more of it.
So the first question I want you to consider is: Does your protagonist
find trouble, or does trouble find your protagonist? That is, is he/she
an enthusiastic troublemaker like Oedipus, or a reluctant one like
Now both Oedipus and Hamlet are tragedies, because in the end, they are
not able to overcome the trouble they find/create. Most of us aren't
writing tragedies. But you know, the major difference between a tragedy
and a non-tragedy is the ending. Our books are mostly going to resolve
with the hero finally able to conquer the trouble... but up to that
point, the structure is often remarkably similar to the great tragedies.
A protagonist encounters (or creates) trouble, struggles to overcome or
resolve it, but makes it worse, then, by learning something and/or
growing somehow from the struggle, makes a final valiant effort to win
But structure isn't the most important thing we get from the great
tragedies. Aristotle was fascinated by "the tragic hero" and Oedipus was
his major model for that. Almost 2000 years later, Shakespeare was just
as drawn to the concept of the protagonist responsible for his own
conflict, his own destruction, and his own triumph. So the most important
thing we get is what Aristotle called "hamartia"-- it's an archery term
that means "missing the mark" but is usually now called "the tragic
flaw." Only I'm going to call it "the heroic flaw", because in our books
usually this flaw won't lead to tragedy, but rather, paradoxically, to
greater enlightenment and power.
The heroic flaw is what opens the protagonist up to real trouble-- what
causes him (and back in Aristotle's time, it generally WAS a him :) to seek out trouble or fail to resolve it expeditiously. But here's the clever part-- the heroic flaw was often the other side of the heroic strength:
"That which makes him great brings him down."
This is so elegant, so classy, so inspiring, that even today novels can be transformed by that equation.
Aristotle, as I said, used Oedipus as a model (and let me just say, both
the play and A's analysis are as brilliant now as ever before-- Oedipus
is, in fact, not only a nearly perfectly plotted story, but the first
great detective fiction!). He and I sort of disagree about Oedipus's
heroic flaw (we have a lot of arguments about this, me and Aristotle <G>,
but he usually ends up conceding I have a point), but we're in the same
ball park. Aristotle attributed Oedipus's downfall to the heroic flaw of
"hubris"-- overweening pride, or what one of my college freshmen called
"stuck-on-himselfness". And I have to admit, Oedipus did think he was
something special. He even early on admits that yes, maybe his admirers
are correct, and he really is just as smart as any god.
Well, you know what the gods do to guys like that. Give them boils. :)
They didn't give Oedipus boils, but they did sort of ruin his day. He
was just too proud of his intellect, Aristotle said, and it made him take
chances he should never take.
Well, I yield to none in my admiration of The Big A, but I think he sort
of missed the mark himself there. (Talk about hubris.... here I am,
giving Aristotle an A for effort and a B- for evidence. :) I think
Oedipus's heroic flaw was curiosity-- his need to find the truth.
(Actually, his hubris was based on his belief that he above all was
uniquely qualified to find the truth, because he was the Riddle Solver.)
Notice that truth-seeking/curiosity is a STRENGTH. It's so much a
central strength to Oedipus that it earned him a throne and a wife (by
his solving the riddle of the sphinx) and so of course he cherishes it in
But because it is so central to who he is, he can't just give it up. He
can't stop being curious and seeking the truth. In fact, even though
Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns him, ""You don't want to know the
truth," Oedipus keeps seeking the truth. And it's that truth-- not the
defiance of the gods-- that brings him down, because what he learns is
You can see that his central strength/heroic flaw is what ends up making
trouble for him.
Now Hamlet also has a central strength-- deliberateness. Analysis. He
is very good at thinking things through. He takes his time and does
research. He's a student, a scholar. He likes to reason everything out.
He doesn't act without due consideration.
A very good strength. But... look what happens because he has to gather
evidence, do research, think things through-- people keep DYING. If he
would have been impulsive and thoughtless and as soon as dad asked him to get revenge, killed Claudius, well, all those other deaths would never
have happened. It's his very deliberateness, his need for analysis, that
doomed them all. That is, none of this trouble would have happened if he
didn't have this particular central strength/heroic flaw.
We need flaws. Only by being flawed can we find room to grow. (So
flawed is GOOD. :) A perfect protagonist is an unlikeable protagonist.
Let me tell you what happens when you endow your protagonist too
I was once critiquing a manuscript for a writer who assured me I'd adore
the hero. He was everything a man should be: Handsome but humble, tough
but sensitive, wealthy but egalitarian, serious but humorous, elegant yet
simple.... When there was a problem, he instantly solved it. When there
was a hurt, he instantly fixed it. He was a famous writer who had his own
rock band but composed classical music on the side, and on Sunday he
preached a dynamic sermon (in both English and Spanish) to the church he
founded down among the homeless and displaced. Needless to say, women
fell at his feet and begged for his attention. There was nothing--
nothing-- that the plot could throw at him that he couldn't handle with
aplomb. Everyone had to love him.
I hated him.
Call me envious, spiteful, inferior. But I thought he came across as a
sanctimonious, smug prig. Not to mention that anyone with so many
exceptional qualities and such huge success in the world doesn't need my
sympathy/empathy/caring/identification. In fact, he made me feel
inadequate and unpolished. :)
Surely I’m not the only reader who sees someone this perfect, this lofty,
and thinks right off -- so when does he get killed and the real hero
The other problem is-- with perfect characters who have strengths with no
corresponding flaw, it's hard to plot, because whatever trouble comes up,
they can handle. (They never CREATE trouble, of course! They're too good
for that.) There's no conflict because we know the author would never
let any real harm come to this perfect creation.
And fiction is all about change, but why would he bother to change?
Where’s the need to change? He’s perfect as is. He doesn’t need love or
self-knowledge or a new attitude. He doesn’t need anything.
That’s why imperfect, incomplete characters are more interesting. First,
we imperfect readers can identify with them. But, in terms of structure,
the imperfect protagonist makes the three-dimensional story possible. The
character moving through the external plot is a story of only two
dimensions. The internal story, the process of psychological or emotional
or life change, provides the depth that takes this story into three
So if you’ve been told your story is "flat", here’s how you can add
depth– give that protagonist an internal plot. And that requires room for
growth. Imperfection, incompleteness. A heroic flaw. Nope, not an
unheroic flaw. (Oh, she can also be crabby in morning and have PMS, but
her main flaw should be a heroic one, or we'll assume she deserves her
This will help you individualize your plot because you'll figure out how this particular person with this particular combo of strength/flaw will respond to each plot event. After all, we generally have a default response-- we lead with our strength. If I'm called upon to make a decision and I'm intuitive, I'll naturally use my intuition to make this decision. If instead I'm deliberate, I'll deliberate about it, just like Hamlet, before deciding. So early in the book, the protagonist will be using that strength to respond to the plot
events, and that will make the book go off in a direction driven not by
custom or cliche, but by this character.
1. Is your character an enthusiastic troublemaker or a reluctant
How does this affect how he/she gets involved in the plot?
How does the enthusiasm/reluctance lead to even more trouble?
2. Here are some central heroic strengths. Please feel free to add to
this list-- there are many, many more. You can make up a word, or add an
adjective ("reckless determination") to refine. But identify your
character's central strength.
3. Now list all the PROBLEMS that come along with this strength! How is
it also a flaw?
Example: Strength = Caretaking--
Doesn't take care of herself.
Tends to be controlling
Thinks she knows best
Will maybe get rebellion from son-- she's overprotective
People take her for granted
She'll attract needy people and alienate strong people.
Strength = SELF-SUFFICIENCY
needs no one
no one to turn to for help
4. Now how does this strength/flaw FIRST get the character into trouble?
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets, Point of View Manual, and plot guidebook:
The Story Within Writing Series
The Power of Point of View
The Story Within Guidebook
Or if you prefer the spoken word, check out my workshop tapes:
Alicia Rasley's interactive workshops
Go to previous articles:
Top Ten Power Busters
The Internal Journey
Plotting: The Three Acts
Synopsis Creation: Plot Revision
Paradox in Balance
Romantic Turning Points
Quick Character Motivation Exercise
Dazzling Dialogue Tips
The Submission Journey
Suspense Is More Than Surprise
Scenes on Fire!
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes
On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening
Tightening the Sagging Middle
Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium
The Publishing Journey
Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers
Setting and Character Interactions
Developing the Dark Moment
The Promise of the Hot Premise
Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes
Subtle and Sensual
Plotting Without Fears
Structuring the Story
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