What does it mean to be self-sabotaging? It means that despite your outward quest for a specific goal, you may be consciously or unconsciously undermining your own efforts. A protagonist who is self-sabotaging is often an identifiable, if not likable, character that often engages your readers.
In any story, the main character faces challenge after challenge, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, as long as they head toward a literal or figurative destination. But with a self-sabotaging character, the setbacks could be self-inflicted. As a result, they may have to change themselves in the story first, long before they make progress in their goal. If you write a story this way, the complicated character arcs have the potential to be engaging and relatable. And your reader could love it.
But how do you pull something like this off? How can you make your protagonist his own worst enemy?
Your character may believe they are guilty.
Now this could be legitimately true: somewhere in the dark past your character committed a crime or maybe an offense and they are haunted by it. Or, perhaps they just think they are the cause of some tragic event. Even that little lie could have devastating effects on someone for their lives. Regardless of what has happened, this guilt has a hold on them so profoundly that they are unable to succeed in life because they believe that they don’t deserve to succeed. They may drop out of school, destroy healthy relationships, give up on their dreams, or indulge in destructive habits because of this lie. How is this good for your story? At about the 3/4 way mark, your protagonist’s guilt overwhelms them and they are unable to follow through with the last little bit of their quest. This can create quite the cliffhanger!
Your character may be ashamed.
Now along with guilt, this is very powerful destructive force, but is less about something that you’ve done and more about something that you are. Shame speaks to our identity, not our actions. Shame can prevent people from engaging in healthy relationships, taking chances and doing anything that normal people might do. A protagonist who is overwhelmed with shame may have trouble seeing themselves as a winner in any context. This is good for your story because it can be strong opposing force. However, to make the story resonate with readers, consider how they can overcome this shame to achieve their goals.
Your character may be broken.
One could argue that all people are broken in one way or another, but this brokenness could come from abuse , from their own choices or from the choices of others. Perhaps in the brokenness, there is a degree of hopelessness and despondency that is keeping your main character from enjoying life in any form. Stores from the early 20th century are famous for portraying this despondency. In fact, a good study on self-sabotage is The Great Gatsby. Nearly all of the characters make poor choices and end up despairing. How is this good for your story? It depends on the story and the tone. Before you create despondent main characters consider what you want your reader to take away from the book. Happier stories may not be a good choice for you. But if you are already planning a sad story, a disappointing denouement, or a failed objective, consider using broken characters to tell it.
Your character may be carrying the blame.
They were told by someone who has a lot of power, that they were to blame for a specific failure. Whether or not it is true is beside the point. The point is that this blame the they were at fault is what is keeping our character up at night. They broke up the parents. Or maybe they are the ones who stressed Dad out so much he had a heart attack. They are the ones who split up the family. Your main character may carry everyone’s burden around them to try to compensate for this lie and that, of course, only makes them more miserable. This has a similar vibe to the “guilty” character. The only difference is that a blame-carrying character may feel responsible for things that are failures — like divorce, not necessarily crimes — like a drunk driving accident. Consider developing the main character arc in such a way that they have to overcome this blame in order to achieve their external goals.
There are more ways to self-sabotage! Psych2Go, a Youtube group, has created this video that explains other ways. Their purpose is to raise self-awareness, but videos like these are perfect for character development. As they say in this video, “Self-sabotage can take a huge toll on your relationships, health, finances, and career.” These could be the very kinds of inner conflicts your protagonist needs to make your story a great one.