Why are innocent protagonists so interesting to write about (those who stumble into a villainous plan)? Most writers love an innocent protagonist. They can be any age, any sex, and live in any era or in any country. They can be shy or outgoing, brave or timid. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this innocent protagonist is an empty page waiting to be filled with experiences. Things – and not necessarily good things – are bound to happen to an innocent person, because they’re not aware of danger and evil and people who dissemble and manipulate. They haven’t had life experiences that have made them cautious and cynical and able to spot emerging dangers and bad people.
That is why they are such a gift to writers. Innocent protagonists have to experience so many things in order to gain experience, or maturity. The adage that bad things happen to good people may be well worn, but it contains the inspiration and template for so much crime and psychological fiction.
For every innocent protagonist believing the best about people, there is a not so innocent antagonist intent on deception and damage. It’s the journey from innocence – not knowing the truth – to experience – knowing the truth, or a small part of it – that is at the heart of most plots and characters and creates the arc of so many novels.
It’s certainly at the heart of The Housekeeper, my story of a clever but naïve woman who is at first bedazzled by the glamorous couple she works for. It takes some momentous discoveries before she realises that all is not what it seems, and that there is a world of difference between public and private lives.
Not all interesting protagonists are innocent. Think of Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley, or Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Sociopathic characters have their own fascination, but on the whole, I prefer an innocent. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jay Gatsby, even Harry Potter. They have so much to learn, so many places to go and people to meet. As a reader and a writer, I like to go along for the ride.
The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty is out 6th March (Simon & Schuster £8.99)