Friday, February 5, 2010

Who Is Your Protagonist When He's At Home?

Here's an amusing (if you're me, which I'll grant that in all likelihood you are not) story: About three years ago, I got the idea to write about the characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet, based on the observation that Hamlet keeps calling the Horatio character his "best friend" even though, based on the text of the play itself, there is no reason for him to think this. I thought that was interesting and I wanted to explore some ideas surrounding it. Anyway, I wrote me a novel and revised it six times and then queried some agents and found a high-profile guy all the way out in Manhattan who said he wanted to work with me on the MS. That was in March of last year. My agent has since then read two revised versions of the book, and he keeps coming back to me and saying that there is something missing, something about the protagonist that just doesn't work. The problem is that the protagonist is sort of more narrator than protagonist, and while the premise remains cool and my writing is quite fine, the second half of the narrative lacks the emotional drive it should have within the protagonist; my main character was too vague, too much a cipher. As my agent said on the phone yesterday, he could sell this book right away if he knew who the protagonist was.

I've been working for the last year to solve this problem, and I've tried all sorts of things that, frankly, haven't worked. My agent (because he kept pointing out this flaw in the book that I could not fix) has been high on my list of people to hate. And my brain kept revolving in a truly simply awful and maddening way around the question "Who is this guy?"
I kept framing the question as "What does he want and how does that affect this story?" and that, I tell you, was a huge mistake.

I was in effect treating the main character as a prop, a plot device to move the story along, and not as a character. I can tell you loads about all the supporting characters, but I could not have told you much of any substance about my protagonist until yesterday afternoon.

Now, of course, I have realized who the protagonist is and what drives him and suddenly the story has a sort of motor, a perpetual-motion machine at its heart that will drive every scene and by gum, that's a cool thing to have. My current book, "Cocke & Bull," has had that internal motor from the beginning, but that book began as a conception of the two central characters. The book my agent has did not, and I spent too much time thinking about Shakespeare's play and not enough time thinking about my protagonist.

How'd I have this breakthrough? Well, it's thanks to my agent (Thanks, Jeff! Love you! I mean that this time!), who suggested that I mentally remove Horatio (my protagonist) from the story told in the book and pretend that he never met any of the other characters and never traveled to the book's settings and lived his whole life outside of the story I've written. So in that sort of vacuum as just some guy and not the hero of any particular story, who is this guy? What's he want? What interests him? What would he do with his life if he hadn't met the Hamlet Family? My agent had a suggestion that was completely wrong, but when I thought about why it was wrong, it got me thinking about what sort of thing would be right. That line of thought sparked an idea of my own a couple hours later, and that spark turned into a flame which has overnight grown into a big roaring bonfire and I can't wait, frankly, to get back to work on this book because it all makes sense now and I keep thinking of ways to make it even cooler than it already is and that spells WIN.

So likely I'm coming late to this party, and you've all been doing this forever, but it's a really cool tool for me, to remove my characters from the story I'm writing and see who they are when they're at home, as it were. I wanted to share this epiphany and see how many of you are already thinking like this.

Also, please note that I write this on Thursday (that's yesterday via the magic of teh internets), because today (which is tomorrow as I write this) Mighty Reader and I are off at an all-day garden show where we hope to learn how to prune the fruit trees in our back yard, which trees had been ignored for years by the previous owner of our house.


  1. Congratulations Mr. Bailey. Break- through progress is always exciting.

  2. I haven't hit this particular wall yet (that I am aware of) and I hope that when I eventually do hit it, I can recall this excellent bit of advice. Knowing me I won't, but I won't abandon all hope.

  3. I've had this problem before with Nick from Monarch, and maybe this is what I need to do with him. Hmmm. A roaring bonfire idea sounds nice!

    Honestly, Scott, I'm super happy that you've had all this happen and that you can move forward with the book. You've never seemed thrilled with it until now, and I think this might be the one epiphany that shoots the book into submission. Yay! I know, I know. Lots of revision first. Still, great news.

    Have fun learning about trees.

  4. I love this thought. I have never tried to remove a character before. I'll have to consider it.

    Good luck with the tree pruning. =)

  5. Thanks a lot for writing this, Scott. It's interesting to see how you think about character within story. There's always a push/pull relationship between character and story, I think, even in the most character-driven of books. I think the story is an attempt to frame something that is pretty near impossible to frame, so it ends up being a series of compromises to make character and story fit together.

  6. That... is awesome. I have no idea if I'll ever use a trick like that, but I'm awfully glad you've found the fire again, good sir. There's nothing quite like it.

  7. Loved the tone of this post Scott. I feel your excitement. I have problems with my characters like that sometimes. Usually I try writing from a different POV and try to see them differently.

    This might be a good tool also. Thanks for passing it along.


  8. Glad you mad the breakthrough, Scott!

    This is definitely helpful, sort of like putting a character in a completely different situation and seeing how he or she would turn out differently (it was kinda fascinating, really--I did this is in a half-RPG way, half-freewriting way, and found key elements of one MC and what made him tick, and basically what drove him to become the character he is) and looking at what the similarities and differences are...

    I may have to play with this more, when I get stuck on figuring out people. :) Thanks!


  9. This is totally cool for a couple of reasons. #1, you get to finish this cool story that you were stuck on. #2, your idea of taking the character out of the story and imaging them at home (or someplace similar) is awesome, something I'd not thought of before.

    Thanks for the cool idea.

  10. Wow - I've read a zillon books and blogs and articles on writing, and I've never heard of this before. Great idea. I've got a character I want to try this with today. Thanks, Scott!

  11. I'm a planner, and that means I outline and I do character sketches before I start writing the story. I always feel like I need to "interview" my characters before I can send them into the action. I write down what they look like, what their childhood was like, their favorite things to do/wear/eat, their mannerisms, personality traits, etc.

    Maybe it's because I was a psych major and had lots of practice profiling people! But doing that sort of pre-planning makes the action and dialogue so much easier for me to write. If I want something to happen plot-wise and I start to write it, after doing in-depth character explorations, my gut knows instantly whether that character "would" or "wouldn't" do that, and why or why not.

    By the way, I love your idea of plucking characters out of a play who don't make psychological sense (which, in a play, seems less important) and trying to reconcile them in novel form (where psychological realism is, arguably, everything). It sounds like a great mental exercise as well as a fun new way to shine a new light on an old story using a different medium.

  12. Enjoy your breakthrough! I love Eureka moments and their follow-through.

  13. Genie: I have seen people do character sketches and interviews and write down their life stories and all of that, and I cannot for the life of me make myself sit down and do it. So there, to all of you who think I'm Mr. Total Plan Control Freak. Some things I have to work out by writing them out. I never know how my characters talk, for example, until they're talking to other people in the story. I never knew my protagonist had a limp until he mentioned it. I never knew the femme fatale was from Boston until a secondary character remembered her telling him this. So most of the character details come to me as I need them. If I don't have a context for them, I can't find them. Which is, oddly, the complete opposite of how this particular exercise works. I took my character out of the the story and asked him who he was and what he wanted and voila! it became crystal clear.

    And yes, the real motivation for writing this book was that upon reading "Hamlet" for the twentieth or whatever time, I was struck by the idea that every character in it was totally wacky and their actions made no sense, so I wanted to write about them in a realist manner to explain them to me. Things rather spiraled out of control at that point.

    My new book is much more clear-cut than that. It's about the non-sustainability of willingly enslaving yourself for love. And, you know, crime. Because crime is fun.

  14. Very interesting. I recently saw a video critique of the star wars prequel series (it's was viral a while ago), and at one point they asked people to describe a character without talking about how they look or what their job was. It was easy for people to do that with characters from the original star wars (Han solo == scoundrel, etc..), but they had a horrible time trying to describe Queen Amidala or Qi gon Jin without mentioning queen or jedi.The point was that the characters in the prequel weren't really real characters.

    I recently had a similar problem with one of my POV characters. He just wasn't sticking for some reason. I found a couple useful exercises in "How to write a damn good novel". You can read about them here if you're curiousl.


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