Writing a protagonist can be a challenging task: there can be many masks you’d like to wear and many personas you want to bring to life. When you have an adventure in mind, a world that needs saving and a mission to be accomplished, you may find that a character can be more effective as a protagonist if they amalgamate the thrills, dangers and lessons contained in the journey you’ve laid out for them.
When I first started writing “The Missing Spirit”, I knew I wanted to set it in a fantastic Stone Age, yet my goal from the get-go was always to take on three central themes: inequality, prejudice and authority. Personally, these are themes I have always felt very strongly about, so writing about them really makes me tick.
Something else I discovered in this process: if the subject matter doesn’t hit the spot for you in any way, chances are you won’t have the nerve and drive to see your story through.
So, how do you approach touchy themes like inequality, prejudice and authoritarianism without drafting a manifesto or a straightforward political speech? My way to go about it was creating characters who are directly affected by these issues. And how do you delve into these issues and nudge your reader to question their own views about these themes without being preachy?
That’s when your heroes and villains come into play.
“The Missing Spirit” is made up of quite a few heroic and villainous characters, but let’s focus on the foreground characters: Keana Milfort and Sir Quentin Vellaskey. While Keana is a human refugee who was adopted into a family of benevolent gods and fears she may be separated from them, Sir Quentin leads the political elite whose job it is to make sure that gods and humans remain segregated, no matter the cost.
In a nutshell, here’s how each of the three themes are reflected on the heroine and the villain of the story.
* Inequality – the realm of Devagar has had a caste system in place for millennia: gods at the top, regular humans as second-class citizens and neanderthals at the very bottom.
Keana is directly affected by inequality because she’s about to find out whether her blood lineage is divine or human. She’s been raised by gods thus far, but if she hasn’t been confirmed as one of them yet, so that could mean being downgraded to a life of disrespect, blind obedience and abuse.
Sir Quentin, however, is unaffected by inequality because he is the de facto leader of their society. His job is to keep divine privileges untouched, while keeping regular humans and neanderthals from rebelling against the caste system.
* Prejudice – Since the story is set in the Stone Age, it didn’t make much sense to discuss racial prejudice in terms of different ethnic groups; racism as we know it today would become more prevalent some time later, in the Bronze Age. Therefore, social oppression and injustice are addressed in the book through the presence of neanderthals.
Keana is sympathetic toward neanderthals and the way they’re treated by most people really rubs her the wrong way. People who are kind to neanderthals instinctively get on her good side and win her admiration. Keana is a denouncer of prejudice.
Sir Quentin sees neanderthals as a nuisance and would rather finish them off, if the law allowed him to. In his eyes, neanderthals represent a threat and a displeasure, because not only are they immune to his telepathic powers, he has neanderthal blood running in his veins. Sir Quentin is therefore an enforcer of prejudice.
Authority – Devagar only works as a society because the gods have full control over people’s lives. No one can enter or exit without their say-so, every citizen is subject to being telepathically investigated at all times and everyone must follow career paths predetermined by the government.
Keana is averse to authority figures, mainly because she doesn’t know where she came from, which means she’s always dreaded being separated from her family were the government to suspect her lineage to be unsuitable. Keana believes people should be free to belong wherever they want and to write their own destiny, no matter how dangerous that path may be.
Sir Quentin is the ultimate authority figure. His high rank is a point of pride for him, and the belief that he’s meant to steer the future of thousands of people entitles him to treat everyone as either allies or obstacles. His obscure power dynamic comes at play in his relationship with his granddaughter, Flora, who becomes Keana’s ally all the while being his rightful successor.
The overarching themes of the story have now put a heroine and a villain in collision course; the grand scheme of things has been set up. Now, the strengths and weaknesses found in the protagonist and in the antagonist will also help define the archetypes for the remaining characters and determine how they may aid or disrupt their plans and objectives.
In the end, creating a dynamic and balanced opposition between a protagonist’s and an antagonist’s journeys may be the most simple and honest gift you can share with your readers.