Is the perfect protagonist perfect? Because we all love heroes: Chiseled of chin and muscle, right in act and deed, easy to admire, always there when the chips are down and the forces of good have their backs against the wall. But in writing his debut fantasy novel Tome of the Undergates, author Sam Sykes learned a little something about perfect protagonists, something that changed the way he looked at his characters, in changed how he wrote his novel. I’ll let him tell you what he learned.
When I first started writing Tome of the Undergates, it was my earnest belief that all protagonists acted exactly alike: their goals were noble, their methods were just, their affections were easy and anyone who didn’t agree with that was evil. Reveling in these ideas, I finished the first iteration of Tome when I was eighteen.
And I had succeeded in writing a very boring story.
It was only after I had read it and realized it read like every other adventure story that I started asking why any of these characters were doing anything they were doing. Why would anyone chase the noble goal when it’s difficult to reach? Why would anyone take the high road when it’s so much easier to play dirty? Why would anyone seek another person’s love and assume they’d get it right away?
People are messy, complicated creatures. People in extraordinary situations are extraordinarily messy and complicated. Things do not get any simpler when demons and magic are involved and that was what guided me in writing Tome of the Undergates.
The story wasn’t about monsters or quests or magic or mythologies anymore; those came as a byproduct of the characters. At that point, I knew that I still wanted to write a fantasy, I still wanted to write about adventurers, but I wanted to write about people doing things in a manner that fit actual human behavior.
The end result?
A band of adventurers who had started, when I was seventeen, as masters of their crafts bound by their respect for each other, their desire to save the world and ultimately do good was dead. Long dead.
In their place I found broken people: loathsome, opportunistic, easily-frustrated, occasionally-incompetent and frequently racist.
I found a priestess not convinced that Gods didn’t hate her, a wizard who abandons all the wisdom of his craft in a desperate bid for attention, a noble savage who at once wants to kill himself and is terrified to die, a wild woman who would dearly love a world where she could easily embrace a genocidal doctrine but can’t stop feeling sympathy for her ancestral enemy, a man desperately trying to cling to the idea that everyone gets a second chance despite his knowing that no such thing exists and a young fellow slowly going mad with his own desires.
There was no more common moral code to hold them together. In fact, there was little reason they didn’t turn on each other at that very moment. Some people have found this to be an issue in Tome, and I’m not quite sure I fully understood them myself when I started.
But I learned more about them as I wrote them. I know this sounds like a traditionally cryptic thing a writer says to make his craft sound mystifyingly complicated, but it’s apt in this case. I began to realize that these people were not normal. And moreover, I began to realize I didn’t want normal anymore. There is no such thing as a normal person. They do not exist and I didn’t want to write about those fictional normal people.
I wanted to explore people who could hate each other and hate the idea of being apart worse. I wanted to explore people who had a difficult time coming to terms with what they were supposed to think and what they knew. I wanted to learn about people whose sole commonality was their fear.
It occurs to me that I may have just described The Breakfast Club, but bear with me a bit as I finish this.
Tome of the Undergates is about broken people trying their damnedest to cope with each other and themselves. It’s about adventurers as they would act if they were human and not tropes. It’s about a world that makes such people that can be bound together only by their own self-loathing and what they find in each other to keep going.
Tome of the Undergates is a story about people.
All head-eating demons, crotch-stomping and frank discussions of mutilation are purely side benefits.