Balancing Darkness and Light: Keeping a Tortured Protagonist Sympathetic

Tortured heroes are all the rage these days, and tortured heroes with daddy issues have become so common my wife sometimes asks, “Are there any superheroes who had a good relationship with their parents?”

There is just something about the modern mindset that seems to indicate you can only become a hero if there was something missing from your relationship with your father.

SatS Cover Lo-resMy most recent hero, Calibot, has a similar problem in The Sword and the Sorcerer. His father is the greatest wizard in the Known World, the very architect of the precarious balance of power. He’s always been disappointed in his son for wanting to become a poet instead of a magician. When he’s murdered, he bequeaths Calibot two of the most powerful artifacts in creation, forcing his son onto the world stage — a place Calibot does not want to be.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is very much a story about unfulfilled reconciliation and resentment towards one’s parents. Calibot is really angry with his father for not accepting him for whom he wants to be.

But writing a novel like that is tricky. It’s very easy to make the protagonist whiny, mean, or otherwise unlikeable and, worse, unsympathetic.

So how did I approach crafting Calibot into someone I hoped my readers could identify with? There were several approaches I took to making him a person with whom the reader sympathizes instead of loathes.

Establish Happiness

People like happy people. Being around someone who is in a good mood makes you smile. So the first key to making Calibot sympathetic was to establish him as basically happy.

When the novel opens, he is the poet laureate to the Duke of Dalasport. He is debuting the third canto of his comic epic. It’s going very well. Everyone is laughing, and his boyfriend is proud of him. In fact, the relationship is an important part of Calibot’s happiness:

He shot a glance at Devon, whose rich, brown eyes practically glowed with admiration and joy. . . . No one had ever looked at Calibot with that much pride and desire. Calibot felt his heart flutter.

Devon makes him happy. The duke is extremely pleased with the poem and demands the next canto as quickly as possible. Calibot has everything he could ever want — love and success.

But when his father enters the picture — both when someone brings him up and when Calibot learns of his murder and his being required to retrieve the body and lay it to rest — he darkens. There is contrast. When his father isn’t involved, Calibot is happy. When the ghosts of the past creep in, his joy vanishes.


As the narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly obvious that Calibot is being manipulated from beyond the grave by his father. Enchantments on the sword Calibot is bequeathed seem to be shaping his actions and decisions. However subtly, Calibot appears to be controlled. Worse, Calibot knows it and doesn’t know what to do about it:

“Calibot,” Devon said, “has it occurred to you that you may be under a spell?”

His eyes flew open at the suggestion. Then he looked shocked.

“Of course!” he said, and Devon believed him. . . . “Don’t you think all this has occurred to me? I know he’s manipulating me. It’s his last, sad insult!”

“Then why do as he wants?”

“Because I don’t think I have a choice!” he shouted. “I’m not sure he’s just manipulating me; he might be controlling me.”

Because some of Calibot’s actions are outside his own control and because he’s aware and afraid of what’s happening, we root for him to figure out how to beat it instead of loathing him for what he does. Calibot becomes a victim we want to see vindicated.

Multiple Personalities

As this manipulation proceeds over the course of the story, Calibot becomes more aware of it. But especially at first, he doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. His personality changes to the cold-hearted executor of his father’s plans.

But, periodically, he slips back to himself. He is shocked out of who is becoming to be who he wants. When he first triggers the sword’s abilities, Calibot goes from being angry and bloody-minded to terrified:

Calibot looked alarmed and tossed the sword to the ground. It clattered on the stone floor, and the flames went out. Everyone stared at it, astonished.

“How did you do that?” Liliana whispered.

Calibot turned and looked at her with fear in his eyes.

“I didn’t do it,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was happening.”

He turned and looked back at Devon. The Calibot Devon knew was back. All the anger was gone. His eyes were bright blue again. The luster was back in his hair, the color in his skin.

But he looked terrified. He was shaking. His eyes pleaded with Devon to make it better.

“What’s happening to me?” he said.

Just as we’re beginning to think Calibot is some sort of jerk, we realize there are two Calibots — the one who is being forced to fulfill a destiny he doesn’t want, and the person he wants to be. His fear at what’s happening makes us care for him, makes us want to see him overcome this darkness.

Other Perspectives

I shift point-of-view frequently in The Sword and the Sorcerer. In addition to getting inside the heads of the bad guys as they try to pull off their schemes, I spend a lot of time in Devon’s point of view.

He is with Calibot almost constantly throughout the novel, and he knows Calibot better than any of the others. Devon’s perspective on who Calibot is — both the real Calibot and the person he is becoming — is critical to reminding the reader the protagonist is the good guy. Calibot is by no means an antihero, and Devon’s view of him keeps us grounded in his worth. He laments what is happening:

Calibot wasn’t his usual self. That much was obvious.

Devon couldn’t help but worry. Ever since he’d learned of his father’s death, Calibot had become a shell of himself. The clever, funny Calibot was gone. His replacement was cold, distant, and angry.

Devon specifically notes the absence of all the things that made him fall in love with Calibot, the things that make Calibot a likeable character. When Calibot promises vengeance on Eldenberg’s Council of Elders if they were responsible for his father’s murder, the pain is even deeper:

Devon wanted to weep at the sight of him. . . . This was not Calibot, Poet Laureate to His Majesty Duke Boordin’s Court in Dalasport. This was someone Devon had never seen before — the son of Gothemus Draco.

But as he watches Calibot sink deeper into the throes of his father’s spell, Devon is determined that the good man Calibot truly is will not be lost. He’s going to fight to preserve him:

He decided, though, that Calibot needed a conscience. Whatever had happened, whatever spell Gothemus Draco had cast on him, Calibot needed someone telling him right from wrong. He’d lost that compass. . . .

Devon would see this through to the end. Calibot’s soul depended on it.

Devon’s devotion to Calibot is important on several levels. First, throughout the novel, Devon is good, decent, loving, and loyal. By establishing him as upstanding and forthright, I sanction Devon’s interpretation of Calibot’s true character.

Second, for Devon to be this good a person and to stick by Calibot despite the darkness his love is falling into, we believe Calibot must be truly a fine person himself. How else could he have earned the love of someone as decent as Devon?

Moreover, Devon is willing to fight for Calibot’s future. He is determined to save him from this strange magic that is attempting to destroy him. Thus, through Devon, we recognize Calibot as a sympathetic character. We want him to conquer the darkness enshrouding him — for his sake and for Devon’s.

It’s a tricky matter writing a novel with a protagonist battling through feelings of anger, loss, and unfulfilled reconciliation. It is easy to make him or her descend into self-flagellation, whining, and other grim behavior en route to being a thoroughly unsympathetic character readers will hate. To keep Calibot out of that trap, I rely on multiple tactics to make readers root for him.

After all, he is the hero. He should have a few fans.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is available in print and eBook formats. Click on the links below to purchase it. Twenty percent of the sales benefit Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide.

Kindle Edition
Smashwords Edition
Print Edition

More information on Freedom to Marry


One thought on “Balancing Darkness and Light: Keeping a Tortured Protagonist Sympathetic

  1. Pingback: Creating a True Villain — The Absentee Father | John R. Phythyon, Jr., Author

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