Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Perfect Protagonist

By Beth Terrell

I’ve heard it said that the most important character in any work of fiction is the villain, because the villain is the catalyst for the action and the one who forces change on the protagonist. But for me, the most important character in any novel is the protagonist. The most menacing villain in the world won’t save a book if we don’t care about the protagonist. (Think of Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter was a fascinating villain, but only because we cared about Clarice Starling. The later Lecter books don’t strike the same chord, because there’s no one we can believe in.) Since we're talking about mysteries and crime fiction, the protagonist is generally the sleuth, the person who is going to solve the mystery.

Can you imagine Miss Marple slugging it out with a hopped-up pimp in a shadowy alley that smells of urine and rotting garbage? Can you imagine Mike Hammer sipping tea in a parson's parlor, quietly ruminating about the psychological foibles of a small-town microcosm of society? Well, maybe you can--we're readers and writers after all; we live on imagination--but the image just doesn't hold up over the long haul. Poor Miss Marple would end up with a cut throat or a broken hip, and Mike Hammer would punch out the parson, and the balance of the universe would be restored. The story must be true to the characters.

This is not to say that the characters "take over the story" and begin writing it themselves (even though a lot of writers say they do). We like to believe that our characters, through our very own literary magic, can, like the Velveteen Rabbit, become real if we only want it badly enough. In a sense, they do become real--to us, and we hope to our readers. But what really happens when the characters "take over" is that the writer is in that creative zone, where the creative brain has suddenly realized who the characters are, what they would do, and where the story needs to go. It isn't working at the writing any more. It's playing. Let it play!

If it feels like the characters are taking over, this is the time to let them. Just remember that characters, like flesh-and-blood folks, don’t always make the right decisions. For paper-and-ink folks, the right decision is the authentic one. The wrong decision doesn’t ring true. Characters, like the rest of us, want to take the easy way out. They don’t want all this trouble, but we, as writers, have to give it to them anyway.

Characters also go astray sometimes. The creative brain thinks, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if Miss Marple slugged the parson?!” and Miss Marple thinks, “Hey, that’s way more interesting than nibbling on scones and sipping tepid tea!” and veers off in a direction that isn’t true to character and doesn’t serve the story. The creative brain can lead you to some wonderful places, but it can also lead you far afield. As writers, we get to play with our characters, but sooner or later, if we want to pursue this business called writing, we have to put on our editor hats and make sure they stay true to themselves.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Great article, Pat, and oh, so true about protagonists. It's much more fun to write about our villians but our readers had better care about our main characters.

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Jean. Character creation (or maybe it's character discovery) is one of my favorite parts of writing.