Friday, October 18, 2013

Protagonists Should Climb in the Front Seat

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

When I speak to book clubs and other groups of readers, I’m frequently asked if my characters are like me.
And they’re really not—the books would be boring if the protagonists were like me.
But I’m not telling the whole truth when I dismiss the question.  Because in some ways, they are.
In particular, I have one protagonist who behaves very much like me during social gatherings.  Beatrice watches instead of participating.
No matter how much I’m aware of this issue, it constantly creeps into my writing.  I know it’s the way this character is.  It’s in keeping with her personality (and no, her personality isn’t like mine).  It means that I’ll rewrite a handful of scenes in each book in this series—either completely rewrite them, or change the dialogue and action around.
Beatrice is content to watch and listen to others.  She’s gathering information and thinking thoughts.  Neither of these things are good for a protagonist to do. 
Unfortunately, her sidekick is a scene stealer.  This doesn’t help.  Meadow makes witty observations and sometimes generates conflict through her plain talking.  These things would be all right—if the protagonist was on center stage with the action.
Fixing the problem isn’t too difficult—it’s mainly just important to be aware of the problem.  Readers, who usually identify closest with the protagonist, aren’t going to be excited about taking the back seat in the story’s action.  Who wants to watch a watcher? 
Fixing it: If there is a scene where the protagonist isn’t really doing anything, or is listening/watching when someone else is doing something, I’ll rewrite the entire scene.
If there are scenes where it’s mostly a dialogue problem—the protagonist is listening as someone else is ruminating about the mystery or asking questions of cops or suspects—I’ll change the dialogue so that the protagonist is spearheading the investigation.
There are people like this.  I’m like this.  But this trait doesn’t fit the protagonist job description.
We should push our introverted protagonist.  They can be curious, adventurous leaders who like to take charge and fix problems and save the world. They’re proactive people. They can and should have flaws…but hanging back to observe and react shouldn’t be one of them.  Not on a regular basis, anyway. They’re the ones who need to actively observe—to take what they see and run with it.
Do you ever have to spur your main characters to get in the front seat? 
Image: MorgueFile: Jusben