Picking a Loser

In its most rudimentary definition, a novel traces the course of a series of obstacles a protagonist encounters. This makes sense, since suffering is the fundamental plight of humankind. The hardships that are faced should be interesting, but the choice of the lead character(s) matters much more in terms of reader identification.

Picking an ordinary sort can be done. Average Joe is thrown into a maelstrom— with the underlying message that this could happen to you too. Yet that is not what authors, particularly of the literary sort, generally do. They tend to pick a loser, someone who has never fit in socially, did not marry happily, has not achieved financial success, or any number of worldly goals that we spend our every day trying so hard to accomplish. It is almost as if we are trying to say, “Please, let me be good at something.”

When futility is the baseline, the obstacles become more interesting. An excellent book I’m reading, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, makes this point beautifully. In capsule, the book’s launching premise is: two boys are killed during a terrorist explosion in a New Delhi marketplace. The story follows, in turn, the bereaved father, the mother, and a friend who miraculously survived. What is the salient quality of all three? They were already struggling before the bomb went off, and the terrible loss only casts them further into their untenable orbits.

When you are choosing characters, the first impulse is to pick paragons. That’s the sort that would go off on adventures. Yet the loser contains plenty of qualities that you can turn to your advantage. Chief among these is vulnerability. An insecure person tends to question herself. Those questions alone allow you to penetrate further into what the character is like. Even more valuable, the doubts may very well be ones you ask yourself. That’s a live wire you can tap.

Such positioning also forces you to pay less attention to how a character will perform in your made-up mess and more attention to: how would the character end up in the mess? That is a paradigm shift in terms of narrative approach. You’re looking at the scene from the inside out, not imposing the scene upon some blurry mass who does your plot business. Right, Muscle Eddie, he’s my man. Instead, maybe Eddie is afraid of all the unwanted attention his muscles attract. He only pumped iron in the first place because he was such a loser.

Exercise: No character is merely a vessel into which you pour your personal problems. When you pick a loser, try to keep a wry sense of her failings. That way you’ll have to really probe: what weird feeling does she have now? You don’t slip into your own neurosis; you’re trying to understand how your character could have possibly fallen so far into hers.

“Without losers, where would the winners be?”
—Casey Stengel

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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