Thursday, June 9, 2016

When Do You Fire A Protagonist?

Image from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen/Illustrator: Charles E. Brock (Macmillan & Co, 1895)

I picked the wrong protagonist. It took 20 versions and 100 pages of my historical novel-in-progress for me to admit fellow work-shoppers were right. I value feedback from writers I respect, but I do take care to avoid group-think. In this case, colleagues simply called to my attention what my manuscript was already screaming: “You have to rewrite me from a different point of view!”

The problem was that I had chosen to write a story revolving around a girl who was only three years old at the start of the tale. I thought she would turn thirteen within a couple of chapters. She didn’t.

I had one other point-of-view character to play with, but he was already playing the role of antagonist.

Many great adult novels have child protagonists—To Kill A Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Bees to name a few—but rarely are they toddlers. Francie Nolan spends only the briefest time as a baby in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and author Betty Smith deftly handles that with an omniscient voice. That was not the most effective voice for my story.

Me? I was about to saddle readers with the limited perspective of a barely verbal child. I don’t believe a protagonist is required to be relatable, but this was a bridge too far: a character too young for self-reflection, empathy, or the ability to decode social cues. She lacked the vocabulary for complex sensory experience or dialogue, was incapable of hiding secret motivations, was unaware of mortality. I had written this kiddie into a corner.

She would have turned thirteen halfway through the novel, but that was too long. I could not start the story later because of the way the plot was designed to move toward a shocking but inevitable event.

I had to fire my protagonist.

For her replacement, I turned to her twelve-year-old sister, whose relationship with the little girl was central to the story. This was not a matter of simply making whatever happened to the little sister now happen to the big sister. Although the basic plot and events remained the same, I had to filter those experiences through a different mindset.

In some ways, I was starting from scratch.

What’s more, the two sisters could not be together every moment, so I had to give up many scenes I had imagined and replace them with something as yet unimagined. I was crushed to realize that the antagonist and the little sister would be the only witnesses to the event I believed was most critical, which meant readers would have to witness it through the antagonist’s perspective instead of the protagonist’s. I felt as if I were leaving readers alone with a bad man. Worse, I feared I was leaving the new protagonist out of a critical piece of the puzzle.

I was wrong.

Writers don’t put together ready-made puzzles. We create puzzles through the process of writing.

My new choices forced me to face the way events in a family ripple outward, to dig deeper into what family means, to consider why we try to protect our loved ones and why we fail, to explore sexual politics. I spent more time developing the antagonist’s relationship with the new protagonist. Then I used his effects on her to forge her into a hero I never expected.

At first, my new protagonist seemed to me to lack fire. She was domestic, obedient, motherly, unambitious, feminine. She married at thirteen, a tragedy in itself. I married at 39, which some might consider tragic, but it was my choice.

I could not relate to her at all.

My challenge was to find reflections of her within myself, and to ask: how can I give victory to this girl within the confines of her historical era, domestic sphere, and economic limitations. How can I liberate a pre-feminist woman?

It’s not a new trick. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Louisa May Alcott all came into their powers before women’s suffrage. They were feminists before feminism, their protagonists as subversive as many modern female protagonists—for simply insisting their viewpoint mattered. I’ve also sought to honor my protagonist’s role in the sphere of hearth and home, to reveal how sacred that role can be.

As with any worthy endeavor, I’ve faced unexpected challenges, which have taught me unexpected lessons, which have led to unexpected conclusions. All because I fired a protagonist for being underage.

Have you ever fired a protagonist?

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s an editor, ghostwriter, and coach who has collaborated on more than twenty books. She teaches young writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV journalist and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

18 comments :

  1. What an interesting post. Having a two year old granddaughter, I can understand how difficult writing from a child's POV could be. I still can't understand her, and she mostly repeats everything others say. Though I didn't read it, I remember the book ROOM was narrated by a five year old boy. So glad you found your way out of the problem. At least you hired her sister.

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    1. Hahaha, I got a kick out of your response, Polly. The day someone with a background in child psychology told me that a three-year-old was too young to fear death I knew I had a problem.

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  2. Because I use multiple points of view (that's the way my mind works), I haven't had to fire any protagonists -- yet. I do include children, sometimes very young children, but not as POV characters. I also occasionally slip into the antagonist's POV to show how sinister he/she really is, as well as provide some insight into what created that monster who resides in my story.
    Your post provides great food for thought, Cara. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Linda. Indeed, the antagonist still has a POV in my book, which weaves back and forth between the viewpoints of protagonist and antagonist. At a workshop I once attended, the speaker suggested, "If your antagonist is more interesting than your protagonist, you might have the wrong protagonist." I panicked for a moment, thinking, oh no, do I need to change the book again? Then I realized my antagonist was way too irredeemable to make a satisfying protagonist. That did make me realize, though, that I had to work hard to make my protagonist dynamic.

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  4. I haven't had to fire a protagonist, but I can see that there are times when a writer must. And I liked your mention of the manuscript screaming at you. I think that in time, and experience, we all have that little inner voice that tells us, "This isn't working," even as we push and push to make it work. I have finally learned to listen to that voice much sooner and waste less time trying to make something right that is all wrong.

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  5. So true, Maryann. As we gain experience we develop increasingly better instincts for recognizing these things sooner. A colleague of mine still thanks me now and again for what I told her the day she was reworking and reworking a potentially clever line that she just couldn't get to read the way she wanted. I told her, "When I'm struggling that hard to make it work, to me that says there's something wrong. I'd toss it out." Effort is great, but struggle? Not so much.

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  6. I've just completed my third novel and I had to let one of the characters go. He was just getting in the way and requiring to much non-productive verbiage to justify his place in the cast.
    As I write novels about adult relationships during times of stress I like to add children into the mix. Although they do not take centre stage in the action, I find their presence allows my other characters to show an additional dimension to their personalities.

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  7. I love this description of the evolving story and change of protagonist, Cara. I haven't changed a protagonist yet, but I have a couple of novels where a secondary character shows more promise for future books than my main character does.

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    1. An author-friend of mine noticed that in one of her books, Patricia, so she made the secondary character the star of the sequel. Great book!

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  8. Never fired a protagonist, Cara, but have called them on the carpet.

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    1. Hahaha, Christopher, I can always count on you for a laugh. Yup, I've had to call a few characters on the carpet. 😆

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  9. What a fascinating post and experience! I've never had to fire one either, but I understand why you did. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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  10. Thanks, Heidi. It's gratifying to feel understood, especially when it took so much unexpected extra writing to reach this point.

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  11. Sometimes we get a mind block and don't realize what we're doing is just not working. I'm glad you figured yours out. I didn't fire my protagonist, but I'm thinking of making two protagonists equal in my work in progress, instead of giving the heroine a minor role.

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    1. Wow, I've only heard of a very few stories with two protagonists, Morgan. That sounds very interesting. I hope you'll share more about that sometime...

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  12. Amongst the stories in my critique group, sometimes someone other than the protagonist steals all the scenes. You have to be careful to not make your secondary characters more interesting (and active in the story) than your protagonist.

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    1. I agree, Diana. For me, the trick is not to reduce how interesting the secondary characters are, but to push my protagonist harder to rise to the occasion and stay out in front, or to consider whether one of those secondary characters might be better as the protagonist.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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