My name is Adron J. Smitley and I’m an alcoholic.
Or I was . . . until I achieved synthesis through character growth.
Alcoholism is a perfect example of synthesis because alcoholics tend to exist in extremes. 100% or not at all. First they indulge, then they abstain. But it’s only when they realize then apply the epiphany of “everything in moderation” restraint that they achieve true synthesis as a person.
And so too should your protagonist.
I know this because I’m living proof.
For twelve years I drank every single day–not just drink but DRUNK!–though three exceptions apply: two D.U.I’s earned me several months each on alcohol-monitored house arrest where I had to blow into a machine every three hours after a blaring alarm went off, and a ten-day mandatory stint in the local hotbox with 90 days suspended because I wised up and paid a lawyer for my second go-around. Other than that it was drink, drink, and drink some more!
To my credit I was a functioning alcoholic. I would go to work then get plastered when I got home. Soon as I walked in the door I would slam four shots of Everclear (before this became legal in Ohio it was Galen’s 151 vodka), let my dog outside, then I’d slam a few more. Liquor was my drink of choice, the higher the proof the better, because I hated the taste of beer and having to drink so much of it made me pee every 15 minutes. I’d wake up and lift some weights or write for a few hours before work, then come back home and repeat ad nauseam.
Twelve years gone, just like that. Snap!
Eventually I hit the proverbial “rock bottom” or in writer terms the “all is lost” and stopped drinking. For me it wasn’t a painful task but a simple decision. I was tired of drinking, decided I’d done enough of it and so simply stopped. No rehab. No A.A. No withdrawals. No problem.
I didn’t get sick much to my amazement, and I haven’t had a drink since. Not because I can’t but because I can though don’t want to.
I’ve been around plenty of people over the years since who drink, and I’ve had ample opportunity to indulge in the devil’s sweat. But I choose not to because drinking no longer holds any appeal to me. For lack of better words I drank myself sober. You do something long enough and it either kills you or you grow sick of it. Luckily for me the latter applies.
So what does my pity party have to do with writing?
I now understand the true value of synthesis because I’ve lived it, something all protagonists must achieve through character growth. After all, we are the protagonists of our own lives.
But first lemme tell you ’bout a man named Bill. Little Bill, actually.
Little Bill Daggett protected his small western town of Big Whiskey at all costs. He was the sheriff and by god there’ll be order! The citizens of Big Whiskey looked up to Little Bill for the most part despite his being a fierce bully with fast fists and faster iron at his hips. Then infamous gunfighter William Munny rode into town on his pale horse and shot Little Bill and most of Bill’s pals dead for killing Will’s best friend Ned. You see, Little Bill took his overprotective brand of justice a bit too far. Some rambunctious cowboys cut up one of Skinny’s whores named Delilah Fitzgerald so the whores gathered their money together without Bill’s knowing for a bounty on them cowboys and Will and Ned came after it. They served western justice and killed the cowboys, but Bill found out and caught Ned alone. Tortured then killed him. Set poor Ned’s corpse outside in a pine box on public display with a sign around his neck warning any would-be assassins from coming back into Little Bill’s town. That didn’t sit too well with Will. And thus Bill’s arrogant over-protection earned him death by rifle to the face. Little Bill protected his small western town of Big Whiskey at all costs . . . including himself.
So who was right and who was wrong? If Bill was right then why’d he end up dead? How can Will be right if he’s a murdering gunfighter killing the local sheriff? Evil William Munny must be the antagonist then because good Little Bill the sheriff was only protecting his town, correct?
So long as empathy exist then your protagonist can be the most vile person one can imagine.
Right and wrong, or good and evil, are simply a matter of perspective. Every protagonist believes they are right . . . and so too does the antagonist of themselves. If you sat them down, both could present convincing arguments as to why they should triumph over the other because both view the other as the antagonist obstacle in their way to triumphant glory.
But just as in Highlander, “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE! . . . protagonist.”
What separates protagonist Will from antagonist Bill isn’t right vs. wrong or good vs. evil but synthesis. Both are competent gunfighters, both have their own sense of justice, and both have valid reasons for killing the other. So why does Will win in the end? In the seconds before their gunfight in Skinny’s brothel it seems as if both men will be shot dead by story’s end. Will is alone and outnumbered ten-to-one yet he manages to survive, not only shooting Little Bill but also several of Bill’s cronies. Because Will is a protagonist who has achieved synthesis. Bill on the other hand wouldn’t have settled for anything less than overkill.
Your protagonist must grow in one of several ways throughout the conflict of your story to earn a fulfilling conclusion through synthesis, the Midpoint being their tipping point of want vs. need when they switch from Reaction (not in control of the conflict) to Proaction (taking control of the conflict). Either by growing stronger as the person they are (think Jesus or Forrest Gump), or by abandoning their precious want for their essential need and growing into a changed and therefor stronger person (think Rocky or Logan). Then there’s the third option of tragic protagonist who foregoes their essential need and clings to their precious want like grim death (think Nick Cage’s alcoholic character Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas who drinks himself to death) though this represents a smaller percentage of story outcomes compared to the more favorable triumphant protagonist endings audiences prefer.
Both protagonist and antagonist posses the virtue of flaws, or things needing fixed, yet only one flourishes through character growth and thus the defining difference of achieving synthesis.
A fact of life is flaws exist — and that’s a good thing!
Protagonist flaws exist for correction, whereas antagonist flaws not so much.
Flaws are meant to be corrected into protagonist triumph or clung to in antagonist tragedy while serving as moral examples for what to do and not to do so that you can enjoy or suffer the same deserving fate.
But which flaws to choose . . . which flaws to choose.
And what makes a good flaw?
Justice is the theme of Unforgiven, and Little Bill already showed us what being overprotective can earn, so let’s try something else.
How about honesty?
“But wait,” you say, “honesty isn’t a flaw but a virtue.”
The best character flaws are exaggerated virtues. Because virtues are admirable . . . though only to a point.
Sure you can make your antagonist Snidely Whiplash in his menacing swirl of black cape twisting his mustache while he sneers at your blond-haired blue-eyed white-teethed protagonist in his shining knight’s armor atop his ivory steed, but that’s the stuff of boring cliches nobody wants to read.
The world is not black or white, and neither should be your characters.
Remember Will the protagonist and Bill the antagonist, because both are a complexity of flaws and virtues. No one-dimensional characters in Unforgiven! Which, by the by, just so happens to be my all-time favorite movie and a definite recommend for viewing pleasure if not a great lesson on how to design intriguing characters.
But let’s get back to the virtue of flaws. Honesty can’t be a flaw, you say? Tell me that after your wife of ten years asks if her favorite pants from high school make her look fat. Or your 3-year-old holds up their proud painting of a prancing unicorn farting out fluffy koala bears seeking parental approval yet it looks like nothing more than a smeared rainbow of chaos. If you’re truly honest in the aforementioned examples then you may hurt the feelings of someone you care about, so instead you tell a harmless little white lie and smile like you just won the prize pony to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Which is why the best flaws are exaggerated virtues. Because they introduce conflict into every situation while still resembling admirable traits.
Complexity of character!
Little Bill wasn’t just protective but overprotective. William Munny wasn’t just seeking justice (for the cut up whore Delilah and accompanying monetary reward) but revenge (for the torture and murder of Ned). Both have their own notions of justice. Justice is about restoring balance but revenge is retaliation, and retaliate William Munny did right through Little Bill’s face with bullets. He also scored the whores’ bounty, in the end reaping his protagonist reward, though it proved bittersweet considering Ned’s murder earned in cruel trade . . . though not so bittersweet as you might presume given that Ned’s murder was the necessary push to induce Will into synthesis.
You see, Little Bill and William Munny are very much alike. They both operated in extremes. This is shown by Will being an alcoholic in his murdering and thieving days though at the start of Unforgiven he’s left that life behind for years past . . . or so he thought. And throughout the movie his tortured past and murderous misdeeds haunt him something fierce as he battles with killing again only this time to procure money so he can give his two children a better life because he’s changed from indulgent infamous gunfighter to poor pig farmer in his years of abstinence. Several times throughout the movie he could drink his problems away like he did in the past, but he refuses. And when he does finally drink again it’s to prepare himself by steadying his nerves for the inevitable final confrontation instead of trying to drown his tortured past by getting drunk.
After hearing of Ned’s torture and death, William Munny takes his first drink of whiskey in years, not just reminding him of his olden days as a notorious gunfighter but physically symbolizing to the audience his true character shift from justice to revenge. He swallows down that whiskey and we get the shiverin’ willies as the transition begins. We the audience know on instant that it’s now going to be either him or Little Bill dead by the end of the movie not long after, mayhaps both. It only takes one step to walk off a cliff, and by taking that first drink William Munny just stepped off his.
But now he has a parachute because he’s achieved synthesis so his alcoholism flaw becomes a virtue in that he operated at his murderous best when under the influence and will so again once he rides back into Big Whiskey on his pale horse to confront Little Bill in a fantastic shoot-out. When the shoot-out happens Will actually refrains from killing everyone and only shoots Little Bill and those few stupid enough to shoot at him first. The rest he allows to leave alive whereas the old William Munny would’ve killed them all then burned down the whole stinkin’ town.
Old Will knew nothing of restraint. New Will shows too much restraint to ensure he doesn’t devolve into the bad guy from his tortured past. Synthesis Will shows just enough restraint because he’s achieved and applies the “everything in moderation” epiphany moral through character growth.
But let’s track way back to honesty as an exaggerated virtue.
Dr. Phil has made a career on his blunt honesty. Millions of people tune in just to watch him tell people right to their faces exactly what he thinks regardless their feelings.
Let’s try another exaggeration of virtue.
Love can’t be so bad, right? Everyone wants to love and be loved so surely there’s no bad twist here.
Ever had a stalker? Someone so obsessed with you they pine after you day and night, stare at you from afar like a creeper, watch you when they think you’re not looking, and eventually follow you home, sneak into your house, then stab you three-hundred times with their loveknife because if they can’t have you then nobody will!
Or how about kindness?
Everyone likes kind people . . . until their Pleases and Thank Yous spill all over the place and you want to punch them in the smile. People overly kind become doormats. Manipulative others use and take advantage of them to get what they want. Overly kind people lend money they never get back then pay their bills late. They go out of their way to please others even at their own detriment.
How about patience?
Surely patience is a virtue one cannot bitterly twist. “Patience is a virtue” exists as a saying for a reason. Until the overly patient person who bottles up all their feelings one day explodes into a fit of rage and guns down their innocent schoolmates.
Everybody loves a hard worker. As bosses we love them because they get things done. Yet we all know someone who toils away like a slave at their job to the detriment of their family whom they rarely see and then snap at when they do for interrupting the work they brought home. Vacation? Sorry, honey, but I’ve got TPS Reports to finish. And where’s my dinner!
There are tons of people who wash their hands a hundred times a day and use hand sanitizer after touching anything because they’ve become so obsessive-compulsive about keeping clean. Their motto is usually a place for everything and everything in its place, and woe to those who forget to use a coaster or leave their muddy shoes at the door.
Everyone wants a loyal lover. But what about one who calls or texts you every 5 minutes asking where you’re at and who you’re with and when you’ll be home? And when you do get home they cling to you like glue and smother you with their overbearing affection.
Courage is admirable, right?
Of course, it’s not so admirable when someone charges blindly into any situation without first assessing the safety and risks involved. Those people tend not to live very long. Adrenaline junkies who go splat at the end of a failed bungee cord or unopened parachute. They make good firefighters . . . until they die because they braved inside for one last attempt and the house collapses atop them in a flaming wreckage. Now their wife and kids go shopping at Stepdads-R-Us.
There exists a whole slew of virtues from which you may pick then exaggerate to your heart’s content. Honesty, Diligence, Perseverance . . . pick your poison then prick your -tagonist.
Like William Munny, an alcoholic is a perfect example of how best to achieve synthesis. Going from one extreme to the other then finding the comfortable middle ground. Indulgence into Abstinence into Moderation.
An alcoholic will indulge in drink, then shift to the other extreme of abstaining completely. But it’s only when they understand then apply the moderation of having a couple of drinks then stopping do they achieve true synthesis, not just in story but also in life.
Trust me, I know.
I have twelve years of proof.
Experience, after all, is the best teacher.