Editor’s Note: This is the final part of our Unmasking Colorful Storytelling series, which explores the virtues of Fawkes by Nadine Brandes. You can read the introductory post here and the second installment here. Beware that this article and its companions will contain plot spoilers.
As writers, we love the heroes in our stories, and despite putting them through intense misery, we want them to support the right side. But in Fawkes, the scenario is the opposite, because Thomas spends most of the story fighting for the wrong cause.
Thomas lives in an alternate version of England where the population is divided into two groups: Keepers and Igniters, who each disagree on how to control colors through the masks they wear. A plague that turns people into stone is ravaging the country, and Thomas is convinced that a mask of his own will cure the hardness creeping over his face, so he seeks out the only person who can provide him with one—his aloof father. But Guy Fawkes blames the king and Igniters for the plague. Until Thomas befriends an Igniter and encounters the mysterious White Light, he pledges his loyalty to the Keepers who are plotting to assassinate King James.
Maybe that setup sounds crazy, but it was amazingly effective, and I think the strategy is worth considering for our own stories. Should the hero have clarity from the start, or can he be vulnerable to confusion? When the hero stands on the wrong side of the fence, we have an opportunity to craft a story that’s profoundly human and moving.
1. Additional Avenues for Conflict
Stories need two kinds of conflict—internal and external. These don’t have to stem from the same issue, but internal conflict is often a catalyst for the external.
The upheaval in Fawkes is almost nonstop. Thomas isn’t sold on the Gunpowder Plot even though he goes along with it, and gradually his doubts become stronger. Some of the Keepers’ claims about their enemies seem accurate. Yet Emma is an Igniter, and she insists that White Light is the cure to his plague rather than the source. This uncertainty tears Thomas up inside. He rejects the possibility that his father is misleading him. But neither can he accept that Emma is lying or part of the reason he has the plague.
Thomas is personally entangled in the plot whether he likes it or not, and his inward struggle spills over, provoking arguments and suspicions with his father, the other plotters, and Emma. As Thomas gains more questions and answers, the story rushes forward. He’s at a crossroads between right and wrong, and whichever path he chooses will be disastrous to people he cares about—and could get him killed.
Predicaments with dual consequences build tension for the characters as well as readers. It becomes a constant game of guessing what is right and who can be trusted.
Typically a hero won’t be aware that he’s on the wrong side of the battle, so he needs a convincing motive to be embroiled in it. Thomas believed he wouldn’t heal from the plague until the Igniter king had been removed and he received his mask. All characters—whether good or evil—should have a stake in the controversy that makes them feel their decisions are justified. Then, when they discover their judgment was faulty, the conflict will heighten.
2. A Deeper Character Arc
Unless you happen to be writing a flat or negative character arc, all protagonists will stumble in the wrong direction until circumstances cause them to reverse course. But a protagonist who’s in league with the bad guys has graver problems to overcome than immaturity or selfishness. Championing the wrong cause, coming to grips with the mistake, and doing a complete turnaround results in hard choices, self-examination, and sacrifice.
In the beginning of the book, Thomas acts whiny, self-centered, and weak. That’s plenty of flaws, but Nadine Brandes went even further and had him join the conspirators. Through the majority of the book, Thomas pours all his effort into ensuring that the Gunpowder Plot succeeds so he can obtain his mask and be cured.
After he realizes that he’s involved in a seditious, hypocritical, and unjust plot, he wrestles with guilt and the conviction to stop his father. His whininess, selfishness, and weakness hit harder because those flaws led him into situations where he dealt with murder and persecution.
Heroes must have flaws, and brainstorming unique ones can be tricky. Many heroes struggle with pride, recklessness, and angst. But if those flaws draw your hero toward the wrong crowd, that helps freshen up the stereotype.
The hero’s poor discernment must make sense though. Don’t shove him into a den of evil for the sake of drama. Thomas signed onto the Gunpowder Plot to get a cure for his plague, and your character needs to have an incentive to leap into the fray too.
A misguided hero lays the foundation for a powerful redemption story. As he faces the consequences of his actions, admits to being wrong, and changes allegiance, his character arc will solidify and readers will see what makes him tick.
3. A More Complex Theme
Fawkes raises several moral questions. Should a person choose the lesser of two evils, or avoid both? Does the end justify the means? Both groups have their own merits and downfalls. King James shouldn’t stifle religious freedom by arresting and executing Keepers. Yet, does killing him solve the tyranny? What about parliament? Are Keepers ignorantly concealing White Light, or are Igniters foolishly tapping its full potential? The truth is unclear until well into the story, allowing the theme to slowly unfold.
Fawkes puts a fantasy twist on religious freedom and the cost of pursuing honor. Thomas takes up a vendetta against King James and Igniters for oppressing Keepers and scorning their views on color power. By the time Thomas recognizes the hypocrisy of this mindset, he’s already neck deep in the plot, formed friendships on both sides, and experienced multiple brushes with White Light.
A misguided hero prevents readers from villainizing other human beings, no matter how false their beliefs are. Antagonists are frequently depicted as pure evil, but putting your hero in their midst gives readers an intimate look at what drives their actions. Readers could empathize with the Keepers’ desire to lash back at Igniters. When the opposing party has an understandable position, the conflict won’t be black and white. Why are these people wrong if their motives are relatable? These kind of questions create a much more complicated theme.
Right or Wrong?
When you sit down to plan a novel, pause to evaluate your goals. Would a misguided hero raise the stakes? How do you want the character to grow spiritually? What themes are you trying to weave in, and what settings do you need to visit?
If your story is addressing controversial topics, a misguided hero might suit your needs. If he’s in the thick of the dispute, showcasing the evidence to refute falsehoods will be easy. Play-by-play details will pack more punch than information imparted to your character secondhand. Readers would have known little about the workings of the Gunpowder Plot if Thomas hadn’t joined it, so a misguided hero can take your story to places it couldn’t explore otherwise.
Not all heroes need to be wrong. But they shouldn’t always be right either. To carry a message, sometimes they have to wander through dark alleys before light calls them out.
Return tomorrow to hear our interview of Nadine Brandes on the podcast. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Who are some of your favorite misguided characters?
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.