October 31, 2011 7 Comments
I sometimes state, “Your protagonist doesn’t protag.”
My Webster suggests that a protagonist is the prominent figure in a real situation. It is usually a good idea to have someone to care about, plot point by plot point. This might seem to be fundamentally given, but I’m surprised how often the issue comes up.
Writers often work directly from plot, building characters much like they do setting; a little of this, a little of that. Once halfway through a hundred thousand word novel, the question creeps up: Who exactly am I rooting for?
This is a hard problem to ignore, given my axiom that a novel is finished when the internal struggle of the main character finds a different comfort level. If we can’t do the first (define the main character), it’s impossible to find the second (define the internal struggle).
A number of writers have said they prefer more than one main character, but this obviously presents problems with internal struggles, making it a difficult concept. I suggest having a prominent figure in a realistic situation.
I’ve noticed a kind of pattern with many novels, of late. There is a tendency to work at creating the sympathetic character that is utterly downtrodden. I do this too, and the novel, Shaman Within is an example. At first the protagonist has a problem, then the character has a bigger problem. Some are resolved early, but the cycle continues until nothing but problems abound. The strategy of building sympathy bears taking a closer look because there’s more to it than just beating on the kid.
Let’s start that closer look with the second definition of the protagonist: The advocate or champion of a cause or idea. Usually the lack of this strategy is why I end up saying, “Your protagonist isn’t being a protagonist.”
Even while your main character is suffering from mounting problems and deeper downtrodden depths, he or she should act. Nobody likes a moping character. (See Twilight for the lonely exception; not that I can explain why people like it).
Sympathy has two components to it, in my opinion. One is a need for our sympathy because problems and conflicts accost the character. The second component is that we see the person struggling to earn our respect. The character might be downtrodden, but the character doesn’t necessarily deserve to be treated so poorly. My protagonists protag. They are always fighting back.