|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 Press, Rivet 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.