Thursday, September 1, 2011

Keeping Distance Between a Protagonist and a Reader


I just finished reading a book for my book club: Monster by Walter Dean Myers.

The 16 year old protagonist, Steve, is on trial for murder. He’s portrayed as a terrified and nearly frantic youth who is trying to make sense of the justice system and what he’s experiencing.

Myers used an interesting technique in the story. Steve, an aspiring screenwriter, records his trial in the form of a screenplay…with camera angles, etc., included. The protagonist’s reasoning for doing this is that by looking at the process through a lens, he gets a little distance from the events, which calms him a little.

Interspersed with the screenplay is a journal that Steve uses. Readers, I think, need this diary for insights into Steve’s thoughts and feelings and to help them relate to the character more.

As a writer, I’ve worked to get my readers as close as possible to my protagonist—especially in the last two books I’ve written. I want my readers to see the world through my protagonists’ eyes, feel what they feel, and relate to them. I want the characters to be very likeable.

But there are many books with main characters that readers may feel ambivalent about. This was the case with Monster. Is the protagonist guilty or innocent? There was always some distance between myself and Steve. Maybe I knew how the character felt now, but I wasn’t privy to all his thoughts—only the ones he recorded. But because the writer had made the protagonist interesting to me, I kept reading to try to learn more about him.

I wasn’t even completely sure I believed the protagonist (which was, I think, the author’s plan.) So there was a bit of the unreliable narrator going on.

I thought it was an interesting approach—but not one that I’d take with my traditional mysteries. I create flawed protagonists…but I try to make the character flaws things that ordinary readers would relate to.

How close do you let readers get to your protagonist? If you’re creating narrative distance, what are you achieving with that effect (for Monster I think it was to create discussion between readers…as I’m sure I’ll find at my book club meeting)? As a reader, do you like protagonists that are open books, or characters that you can’t quite figure out?