Focus on the Protagonist in Creative Fiction Writing Help
Focus on the Protagonist in Creative Fiction Writing
As much as teachers taught us to think of literature in terms of overarching values and themes, as authors we set out to accomplish something much humbler. As J. Madison Davis puts it in his book Novelist's Essential Guide to Creating Plot,
If you ask a novelist what she is writing about, she will say, "A guy who tries to rob Fort Knox." If you ask someone who isn't a novelist, he will say, "It's about the materialism of the American middle class." The latter person should be writing philosophy or something, but until he learns to love guys who plan to rob Fort Knox, he won't be a novelist.
If we succeed in our effort to keep our eyes on our character, themes and meaning will develop and become accessible to the reader. But by the time professors and critics are explicating the themes they discover, we'll be writing another story, thinking about "a woman whose husband has been leading a double life as a bank robber," rather than the abstractions "betrayal and loyalty."
In Writing Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern suggests we get close to what makes our protagonist tick by having the protagonist tell an anecdote. However, it has to be one in which the protagonist feels compelled to cover up confusion, love, shame, fear, or other strong emotions. People usually don't want to see negative outcomes as their own fault; they don't want to appear uninformed or inadequate. Stern suggests we make our protagonist talk in a way that readers see what it is the protagonist doesn't want to face despite the cover up.
This writing approach may be exactly what led to a whole story for Ron Carlson in "Bigfoot Stole My Wife" ( http://bumbleshoot.tripod.com/nuttiness/bigwife.html). Carlson has his character describe the scene in his house when his wife is gone, so readers believe they see through his improbable explanation to the more likely truth he is denying, that his wife was unhappy.
In the two and a half years we were married, I often had the feeling that I would come home from the track and something would be funny. Oh, she'd say things: One of these days I'm not going to be here when you get home, things like that, things like everybody says. How stupid of me not to see them as omens. When I'd get out of bed in the early afternoon, I'd stand right here at this sink and I could see her working in her garden in her cut-off Levis and bikini top, weeding, planting, watering. I mean it was obvious. I was too busy thinking about the races, weighing the odds, checking the jockey roster to see what I now know: he was watching her too. He'd probably been watching her all summer.
In another example of unreliability, the protagonist in Sarah Rakel Orton's short story "Scars and Scales" in the January, 2010 The Sun magazine begins:
…and I, ducking into shadows, carry a platter of beef roast, so raw I can smell the blood, to the edge of the backyard swimming pool. Already Dad has reached the shallow end, and my younger twin brothers, Michelangelo and Leonardo—my mother had a passion for art—are not far behind. I coo to them; their tails move from side to side in anticipation. I sit on the cement and carefully—I have learned to be careful—extend the beef into Dad's open, hungry jaws. Michael and Leo scramble over, snapping teeth and hissing.
When we read this opening, we may think we are reading a metaphor for the way an oldest daughter sees the men in her family or we may think we are reading about a family of crocodiles or badgers. We don't really know why the I, who brings the meat, sees her father and brothers as amphibians or water mammals requiring raw meat. Later, we'll learn that the protagonists' mother has died three months earlier, and this "unreliable" description of her family is a sign of the narrator's ensuing mental illness.
Think about the story in which the daughter refuses the treatments doctors advise for her mother, only to have her mother burn their house down. How does she feel—responsible for causing the problem since she took her mother out of the hospital? Afraid of being blamed? How might she excuse or explain her mother's actions? If she were forced to explain what had happened to a sheriff or the doctors, in trying to convince them that it was an accident, she might become an unreliable narrator, completely believing her story. In it, though, she might "accidentally" reveal details and perceptions with clues that her mother was planning this action, and it was not an accident.
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