Friday, June 19, 2009

Whose Story Is This, Anyway?

Sometimes, writers don't know what they're doing. I'm guilty enough of that, and today I'd like to talk (in a mercifully brief manner for once) about a common mistake writers make: Wrong Protagonist Syndrome.

Wrong Protagonist Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like. You have told your story, written your book, but the focus is on the wrong character. In my most recent book, for example, the first draft was allegedly about a character who wasn't the narrator. The narrator was telling the other character's story, sort of like the Gospels being the story of Jesus as told by his pals. Unfortunately for me, I was actually intending to tell a story about the narrator but somehow had forgotten that along the way, getting caught up in the action of the other characters. A serious rewrite (first of many) was necessary.

It can go the other way, too. The narrator in a first-person story isn't necessarily the protagonist. To stick with the New Testament (best example I can think of at this moment of coffee-deprivation), suppose Matthew Mark Luke and John had written their own stories instead of the story of Jesus. Whole different set of books. Same events, but not the same story.

I recently read an unpublished book where the protagonist from the first 2/3 of the book more-or-less disappears and the last 1/3 is given over to the antagonist, who is then shown as a sympathetic character. The climax of the book is his, is about him. The book, really, should have been all his story; it's like parts of two novels were shoved together.

Even in novels where there is a huge cast ("Lord of the Rings," for example), there should still be--I think--a single focus character. You should be able to say, "This is the story of Person X." Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo Baggins. Lots of other stuff goes on, but every other character in the book can drop dead halfway through the narrative and the central storyline remains.

My current work-in-progress has two main characters. I need to choose one of them as the protagonist of the book. This choice will make a great deal of difference to the way the book is written. If I go with Nathaniel, the story will be about a man who sees that there's more to the world than he imagined; a story about being surprised. If I go with Daisy, the story will be about a woman who's suspicions are confirmed; a story about being right. These are different stories. The events will be the same in either version, but the meaning will be different.

In Other News: I will not be blogging next week. Why? I'll be moving house and won't have internet access. Behave yourselves while I'm away.


  1. Oracle or Darius? Oh, I know which one I want to write about, but will Mr. Greyhead take over? You know how he is.

  2. Nice post. I feel your pain about doing re-writes. My WiP had to be completely re-edited because I was trying to find an antagonist, not realizing that the MC had her own personal demons to work with first.

  3. I love your view one this subject. I never thought about different perspectives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Great example!

  4. Great post. It's as important for the synopsis and query, too, that you make sure you are promoting the correct story line.

  5. I keep trying to write a story that doesn't just focus on one character. That's one of my life's goals. I think it can technically work, but whether or not it is any fun to read has yet to be determined. I tried really hard to make my first book about multiple characters, but in the end I focused on one.

  6. Davin: I'm reading The Iliad right now, and it's got a cast of thousands. There are about a dozen main characters, but sometimes it just seems like a lot of milling about with no real direction. Though Homer does some clever things like talking about the aftermath of the story's action halfway through, then saying, "But, before any of that happened, the Trojans stormed the Akhaian's ships..."

  7. Scott, how does talking about the aftermath help the story? Do you mean that it brings more focus when having the large cast of characters makes it more complicated?

    Lately, I've been wondering if a story needs direction. I think, traditionally, all good stories have direction, but when I'm honest with myself, what I personally enjoy with a lot of stories is the still part, hundreds of little unresolved conflicts instead of big ones. Perhaps my writing will eventually be lacking in all things that makes writing marketable.

    Good luck with your move next week!

  8. Davin: I'm not sure what Homer did helped the story, but it entertained me for a few minutes. At about the exact halfway point in the story, when the Trojans are about to storm over the battlements the Greeks have built to protect their ships on the beach from an attack by land, Homer leaps ahead in time to talk about how the battlements fall apart and erode long after the Trojan war has ended. Then he leaps back into the interrupted narrative of the war. It's a nice moment.

    I don't know what a story needs, except to be told well. Though I do mostly think a story should be able to answer the question "what happened?"

  9. I struggle with this same thing. I have the narrator and the other main character. Whose story is it? It used to be both. Now it's the narrator's story. That's what I'm working towards.

    I can't say that Homer's writing style has endeared him to the modern reader. I fear that if we were to write like him we would have a hard time getting published in the current marketplace. Just a thought.


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