My AuthorCulture article, “Lessons from the Pros: Bad Guy Protagonists” was inspired not only by the books I mentioned in the article, but also by how much difficulty I’ve been having developing Debra Chandler’s character for Corporate Ladder. Back when I first started the manuscript, I presented it to the good readers at Christianwriters.com to give it a quick test drive.
Almost everyone who read it disliked Debra–my “Bad Guy Protagonist”– but some still found her sympathetic. Some hated her. Hated. Those folks didn’t give a bean what happened to her.
Well, recently I pulled the manuscript out and took it for another test drive. Same results, along with the reminder that Debra’s fiance, Tyler Wallace, is no peach either. One of my first round readers loved Debra and hated Tyler. Some of my second round readers hated both.
I understand people hating Debra. When she finds out her mother’s live-in has been beating her, Debra goes on a mission to earn enough money to get her mom out of that situation. And the higher she climbs up the corporate ladder, the lower she sinks morally. Most of my readers believed she was a Christian on the descent. Something else I have to fix–she’s not a Christian. She only thinks she is. Subconsciously, Tyler is her savior, and if she loses him–which she ultimately will–she’s truly lost.
Tyler is her moral compass, the one who tries to bring Debra back around from the self-destructive path she’s racing down. But because that’s his mission in the book, readers find him judgmental. Overbearing. Insensitive.
What to do?
Since I began the book with the first action of Debra’s moral faux pas instead of the reason for her actions, I had to back up and present the characters in Debra’s pre-downfall state, when they were loving and happy. In other words, I began with action–but it was the wrong action. I started with the inciting incident and skipped the book’s set-up.
Each genre usually dictates where a story should start. With romance, you start with the two potential love birds meeting (if it’s a boy-meets-girl format, or meeting again if it’s boy-gets-girl-back). With mystery, you start with whatever it is that needs to be solved as the story progresses. In both of these, it is the story itself that is the focus–how two people fall in love or how the murder is solved. Characterization is important, but not quite like it is in women’s fiction.
Women’s fiction (literary fiction in general) is all about the character. Totally about character arc. Who she is, what she was, what she wants to be–and how she gets there, if she does, and the changes she makes along the way. This isn’t to say the arc isn’t important in other genres, but in women’s fiction, it’s everything. By skipping the set-up, I left out a huge chunk of that arc.
Backstory often plays a more prominent role in women’s fiction than in other genres. Books like While I was Gone, The Memory of Water, and To Be Sung Under Water spend a large number of pages on backstory because, as I said, the point of this kind of fiction is to show the character’s growth.
For Corporate Ladder, I don’t need quite as much backstory, because what Debra was, although important, isn’t as important as the trek she’ll make to becoming what she wants to be. Still, to develop any kind of sympathy for her, I must show from her past–which is part of her present–why she takes that nosedive into moral decay.
One of the keys to starting off on the right foot is to know what your genre’s requirements are for the first few pages of your book. To discover what these are, pull several books from your shelf and read the opening scenes. What are the common components? How do the authors differ when presenting these components? How does your work compare?