Human beings are not perfect. I think each of us can pick out qualities within us we would rather do without. There are qualities in each of us that, well, we need to work on. There are faults. In fact, I’m willing to wager that for some of us, if not most of us, it is easier to identify our faults than it is for us to identify those qualities we are proud of.
The characters of any book have to be real to the reader. The protagonist and the antagonist should have both good and bad qualities. There should be both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses in the protagonist make him or her loveable and interesting. It is these qualities that push the reader into the pages as we follow along on the adventure just to make certain nothing extraordinarily bad or catastrophic happens to our heroes.
In Caught in a Web, one of my favorite characters, Brian, suffers. His mom and dad can’t recover from the loss of Brian’s twin brother. Brian is neglected, left out, and basically on his own. He doesn’t always make the best decisions, but I’m willing to bet each of us did some stupid things along the way as we grew up. A counselor, Jeremy, guides him, works with him and provides him with the structure that is lacking in Brian’s own home. Brian has been friends with Jeremy’s adopted kids for several years, and it dawns on Brian that he is more welcome in Jeremy’s home than in his own.
I think the reader identifies with Brian because, as I stated, we don’t like to see anyone suffer, especially kids. Deep down, we want kids to be happy and successful. This is certainly true of our own kids, isn’t it?
George, one of my readers’ favorite characters, is a fifteen-year-old Navajo Native American. He is displaced from all he knew and loved because his family had been murdered execution style in another book, Stolen Lives, Book One of the Lives Trilogy. He has been adopted into Jeremy’s family. Relatively speaking, he is happy. He is cared for. He is loved. As James Patterson does with his Alex Cross character, I move George and the other characters from my previous books into other stories and adventures. As George and the others move forward, there is baggage, some known, some unknown to the reader. This baggage, both good and loveable, contrasts to those qualities that aren’t so loveable. Kids make mistakes. There are lapses in judgment. We’ve all had them as we grew up. Some of us still have these lapses in judgment, don’t we? Characters in a book need to be real.
Now, enter the antagonist, or with Caught in a Web, the antagonists. Yes, there are several bad guys as the reader finds out. One is more evil than the other. They have a purpose, and I purposely hide the purpose from the reader until close to the end of the book. In fact, the reader will find out who the antagonists are before the reader finds out why they are the way they are. That is done purposefully. In this story, the greater puzzle is the why, not the who, although I am rather proud of the climax.
The antagonist in any mystery is generally not liked by the reader. They cheat, they kill, they rob, and they create all sorts of mayhem. They are intentional in their infliction of harm on the protagonist. They come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. They can be male or female.
It is this tension that sets up the plot of Caught in a Web. One antagonist, the truly evil antagonist without a conscience, will threaten members of Jeremy’s family. Again, no one likes to see kids struggle or come to harm. It is this edge, this tension, that the reader rides on until the end of the story. I depict an evil gang, MS-13, in Caught in a Web. By any measure, they are horrible individuals, and collectively, worse. We could argue that there are no redeeming qualities in this gang. Perhaps, others. It is this gang that provides the protagonists their greatest conflict.
In Spiral Into Darkness, we have the same two protagonists, George and Brian. They bring their same personalities, and baggage, into the story. We explore more of Brian’s thoughts as well as his actions. He is searching for his place in his new family. In Spiral Into Darkness, George is more like the character from Splintered Lives, Book Three of the Lives Trilogy. Self-assured, confident, and willing to take chances, much like he did in Caught in a Web.
The antagonist, however, is a different sort of character. He is a serial killer with an agenda and motive only he seems to know. He is cold and calculating. Yet, he can blend in because he can hide in plain sight. He is cunning and brilliant, and as the reader turns the pages, it is his over-confidence that finally does him in. The reader will find out who the antagonist is around the two-thirds mark in Spiral Into Darkness. What I held from the reader was the “why” or the motive behind the antagonist. I find I do that more and more in my writing. I like the puzzle, and I think my readers do, too.
In my book, Betrayed, there are three protagonists: George, Brian and Brett. Best buddies to be sure. They play off each other. George has a single-minded purpose: find his missing friend. Brian and Brett are thinking this trip is nothing more than a hunting trip. Wrong. They wrestle with unspoken feelings towards one another. Brian, in particular, feels let down and betrayed by those who are closest to him. Those who they thought they could trust betray the three boys.
The antagonists in Betrayed are several. Kids or not, they operate on greed and revenge, and will exact it any way they can. And they certainly try. The savvy reader will recognize who they are, but again, not the “why”.
For the reader, as well as the “good guys” it becomes a race to stop the antagonist before he can do any more harm. I believe that chase, as well as a well-rounded protagonist and a well-rounded antagonist, are the hallmarks of a wonderful story. The reader has to “believe” in both, or the story falls flat. The reader might not need to cheer for the protagonist, but the reader has to understand the protagonist’s motive. Perhaps even more, the reader has to fall in love with the antagonist. The reader has to see him or herself in the actions, the words, and the thinking of the protagonist. The interplay between the antagonist and the protagonist makes the story.