Aug 18 2011

Tips on Self-Destructive Protagonists

Published by at 10:32 pm under Character Development,Writing Articles

Self-destructive protagonists have become well-known and easily recognizable stock characters, particularly in noir fiction. While this isn’t a problem on its own, the amount of characters that fit this basic archetype have cluttered the field and made it a challenge to create unique ones.


If you’re writing a similar character, to keep your story interesting and hard to predict, you should treat your character with care and a particularly open mindset.


What Is Afflicting Your Character?

Don’t just make your character a shadow of another character that uses the same device. That doesn’t mean you can’t use afflictions that have already been used, like drugs or alcohol, it just means you need to be sure that the affliction you are using is the best fit for your story.


First, did your character acquire the affliction voluntarily?  Drugs, alcohol and gambling debts are voluntary. But Alzheimer’s—which I consider to be an affliction that can lead to self-destructive characters—is not. For example, Joshua Hale Fialkov used a brain tumor in the aptly-named graphic novel Tumor.


The next part of creating interesting self-destructive characters is to have an open mind while indulging in the creative process. All stories and characters are prone to change, and in analyzing your character’s affliction you should question whether or not the affliction you have chosen is the best one for your character and/or story. Please use the most suitable device rather than just the first one that comes to mind.

Using an Affliction to Drive a Story

To avoid creating a flat character and story, I wouldn’t recommend using a conflict between the protagonist and his/her vice as the main conflict—especially not as the sole conflict. Having only one conflict in a story can get boring very quickly. Additionally, having multiple conflicts is more realistic. Conflicts and problems in one aspect of a person’s real life usually spill over into other aspects.  (If you’ve figured out a way to keep alcoholism from bothering a significant other and boss, please let AA know).  Having multiple conflicts can also create relatability.  For example, if the only conflict were a character’s struggle with an addiction to heroin, non-addicts might have trouble relating to that.  However, if the character’s drug addiction affects his/her romantic relationship, most readers could probably relate to that through a different experience that has placed stress on a relationship.


Stories should always have more conflict than just the character’s self-destructive trait/affliction. That conflict doesn’t have to be entirely separate from the affliction—in fact, it shouldn’t be; the other conflict should come from, or at least be related to, your character’s affliction. Tying the conflicts together helps add layers to the story without compromising coherence. Trying to tell too many unrelated stories in one stroke could result in an incoherent wreck.  If you find yourself in that situation, I’d recommend isolating the most interesting story and just focusing on that one.


Another way to use afflictions to develop a story is to consider whether your character indulges in other destructive activities.  (For example, an alcoholic might also do drugs or make poor decisions while under the influence).  If you’d like to go with something less common, maybe he or she is keeping his or her affliction from his or her family. If it’s a medical affliction, maybe he or she can’t afford treatment. Or, if the affliction is voluntary, you could delve into why the character initially indulged. All of these things provide room for elaboration and bring the character’s story to another level.


For example, the above character that can’t afford treatment for a medical affliction might do some less than legal things to get the necessary funds. Alternately, perhaps the character’s financial need inspires a friend or a family member to raise the funds by any means necessary. Combined with the character’s destructive affliction, either one of these plot strands would be more interesting than just having the character deal with her affliction.


You could also use the affliction to create a deadline, but I would really recommend considering whether your story needs one first. Deadlines can be used to increase the suspense or tension in a story and give the goal more weight. However, they can also be a slippery slope and become the only source of tension. If you do include a deadline, please make sure it isn’t the only source of conflict and that it fits naturally into the plot.


A Final Tip

Please don’t treat your character’s affliction like Kryptonite (more or less the only thing Superman is vulnerable to). If your character is susceptible to one affliction, he’s probably at least somewhat susceptible to other afflictions. If not, I’d recommend giving a reason for that that would convince skeptical readers. That will help flesh out the character and make him a more round, believable person.



Jeremy Melloul is a student and writer who indulges in all forms of writing from poetry, to comic books, to short stories or novels, to screenplays, and even to technical papers.  His Twitter ID is @JeremyMelloul.  

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Tips on Self-Destructive Protagonists”

  1. Jonie Legaspion 27 Aug 2011 at 7:59 pm

    Relapses in both voluntary (alcohol, gambling) and involuntary (illnesses, etc) afflictions also add a great deal of depth to a character’s personality.

  2. Jeremy Melloulon 31 Aug 2011 at 4:26 pm

    That’s definitely a fair point – one I should have considered!

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply