Jun 08 2010

Bullies as protagonists? A writing exercise

Published by at 8:08 pm under Concept Creation,Plotting

Bullies are a very common, almost ubiquitous obstacle for young protagonists.  More often than not, I feel they’re stale, one-dimensionally malicious characters with incredibly thin motivations. (Hell, even Galactus has a better reason for consuming the Earth, and he’s apparently a cosmic dust cloud now).

If you’d like to use a bully, one alternative I’ve never seen would be to do a bully as a protagonist. I’ve never seen that before. You may be thinking something like “of course, because such a character would be so unlikable, you dumb ****.” Granted, likability would be a challenge.  However, if Kickass’s tween serial killer and adult serial killers like Sylar or Dexter can be likable, and I think they are, a likable bully is feasible. (However, making the bully likable might be harder, because it’s harder to give a bully good intentions, whereas you can have the serial killer prey on bad guys). So our writing exercise today is to come up with as many possible story hooks for a bully protagonist, preferably one the audience likes even if they don’t want him to succeed as a bully.

Here’s what I came up with…

  • An action-oriented story about a bully that agrees (why?) to help somebody deal with a more brutal bully.
  • A story about a bully that enters high school and suddenly has to deal with bullies that are significantly older and larger.  To raise the stakes, maybe one of the seniors on the football squad is the older brother of one of the kids he tormented previously.  (The primary obstacle would probably be the older bullies, but to some extent it might be the younger brother that the protagonist has to convince to forgive him).
  • A comedy about an incompetent bully.  (Primary obstacle: probably more competent bullies, but could also be teachers/principal/police, etc).
  • Expanding the definition of bully a bit, maybe the character is a prankster whose main goal is to pull off something legendary before he graduates this year. The climax is probably his decision to actually push the button and gain fame or whether his moral development and/or relationships have given him sufficient reason to walk away.
  • A drama about a bully that unintentionally drives somebody to suicide and gets sent to prison.  (Primary obstacle: probably other inmates and/or the prison guards, but maybe himself if the main arc is about redeeming himself).
  • A story about what leads a bully to give up on bullying.   (Primary obstacle: probably himself).  Depending on the author’s inclinations, this could be a character study, religious fiction, romance, some combination of the above, etc.

What did you come up with?

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12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Bullies as protagonists? A writing exercise”

  1. Steton 08 Jun 2010 at 8:22 pm

    There’s a book called Max Quigley, Something Something Something–I think the protagonist is a bully. And maybe one or two others. (The Ant Bully?) But it’s definitely the kind of protagonist that might appeal to editors, if done right …

  2. Wingson 08 Jun 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Still, by making a bullying character a heroic protagonist, aren’t we technically condoning bullying? I admit, the idea has lots of potential to be done excellently, but a less competent writer might end up with a pro-bullying piece.

    – Wings

  3. Wingson 08 Jun 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Of course, the protagonist doesn’t need to be heroic. Probably should have clarified that before I got on my soap box.

    – Wings

  4. B. Macon 08 Jun 2010 at 8:42 pm

    “By making a bullying character a heroic protagonist, aren’t we technically condoning bullying?” I think this is a valid concern. In some ways, a bully will make a trickier protagonist than a serial killer because it’s harder to come up with instances where bullying is something that most people would root for. (In contrast, it’s possible to make villains so nasty that people will cheer for their demise, at least in fiction). However, I thought that protecting somebody from a worse bully (as in one of the above examples), even if it’s for a mercenary reason, is something most people would root for.

    Generally, though, I think the character would probably be an antihero, or possibly something of a villain that redeems himself (or herself) or gets screwed trying. Anything less than the hero’s redemption would probably be a bittersweet ending*.

    *Which can leave readers unsatisfied, but not necessarily. For example, Wicker Man is a horror classic because the bad guy wins. (The hero uses his death to ensure that the bad guy will die later, though, so his mission wasn’t completely fruitless). And the only good thing about Arlington Road, a thoroughly wretched film, is that the bad guys pulled out a surprise victory.

  5. Beccaon 08 Jun 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I’ve noticed a few young adult books lately where the protagonist is a female bully, but I haven’t seen the male equivalent of that very much at all. But I guess it’s easier to deepen the character of a mean popular girl than it is to make a “jock” bully type redeemable.

  6. B. Macon 08 Jun 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Yeah, for the most part, when I think about bullies I think about brutish enforcers and rich boys (Draco Malfoy) more so than nasty popular girls. Using mean girls would be an interesting option for a bully-as-protagonist, though.

  7. Wilon 09 Jun 2010 at 8:49 am

    This is my first comment on your wonderful blog.

    Technically, there is a videogame called “Bully” where you play as a bully beating up former bullies.

    However, like one of the posters said I would hate for it to seem like bullying was being condoned. The best way I could see it working out is the bully changing his or her behavior over time to something more appropriate.

    The best real life example that I could think of was back in the old days when I was in high school, there was a girl who was just really nasty. She would scream a lot, pull people’s hair, smack them on the back of the head, and do all sorts of annoying bullying.

    I couldn’t help but imagine what if one day she suddenly developed very dangerous super powers and now all of a sudden, she couldn’t be as mean or nasty anymore. Yet, people who knew her continued to antagonize her, but instead of retaliating like she normally did, she just quietly would say stop. I kept on thinking what kind of super powers would make someone change like that, obviously the Hulk was one example, but what others? Absorption? Death touch? Explosive?

    I think that’s the only way I could really like a bully, if they redeem themselves for what they did as bullies, or if it was a bully with a really good heart that eventually shined through.

  8. Wingson 09 Jun 2010 at 9:20 am

    Surprisingly enough, mean girl protagonists have been written a lot. The main problem with the variations of this character type is that the author tries to make the character “likable” without making them likable. They’ll attempt to make then the “heroic” character, without making any aspect of their personality remotely good. If I’m asked to sympathize with a girl who routinely puts down others and spends the rest of her free time describing exactly what she’s wearing, down to brand names (This also is a major pet peeve of mine, as it seems to just be the author giving out free advertising, but I digress), I am probably not going to like the book.

    – Wings

  9. Anonymouson 09 Jun 2010 at 10:13 am

    Hm, reminds me of a character I wrote a year or so ago. Never got round to writing her story, but the basic idea was that she wanted to be popular, and in order to fit in, she bullied those who weren’t as well off as her. It was her main flaw, and caused a lot of conflict with her boyfriend- he was an ordinary guy, met her when she was on her own, and then got pretty annoyed when she treated him like dirt if her other friends were around. That said, I think she was still pretty sympathetic.

  10. B. Macon 09 Jun 2010 at 10:34 am

    Welcome, Wil.

  11. ALEXon 13 Jun 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Maybe a bully who falls in love with a new girl who happens to hate bullies so the bully goes on a journey to prove to her and show her that he isnt.(with some help from the main kid he use to bully.

  12. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 15 Jun 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I’m doing an roleplay at the moment over MSN where one of my characters is an ex-bully. He used to be a terror at school to the point where the principals used to beg the local council not to force them into taking him. But now, he is repenting because he sees how wrong he was, with little success.

    Most of them just call him a hypocrite, as he used to pick on people for their orientation, and now he has a boyfriend. It’s very interesting when we do scenes where he bumps into an ex-victim and tries to explain, only to get teased/bashed etc, completely turning the situation around.

    It makes it more difficult for him, since fighting back would defeat the purpose of apologising in the first place, so he just takes it. He’s slowly been getting more wimpy because of it, and is tormented by his past, and finally seeing just how much he caused others to suffer. He deserves it, but my RP buddies all love him and constantly say they just want to pick him up and hug him when he ends up crying. Sometimes I want to hug him, too. So, as far as I can tell, he’s sympathetic.

    …..poor baby. (hugs him, haha)

    I think I’ll hold onto this idea and I might write it later. I’ve always wanted to write something like this.

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