Focus on the Protagonist in Creative Fiction Writing Help (page 2)
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.
Look at the story you've been developing. Think about your protagonist in any of the situations the story might entail and what he or she doesn't want to reveal. To write a monologue from this protagonist's point of view, have the protagonist exaggerate, make excuses, or lie to cover up a feeling or action.
Ron Carlson's character has to explain why his wife is not there in a way that lets him off the hook: I came home, saw my wife was gone, and figured out Bigfoot stole her because I could smell him (not how dirty his house might have been from his own messy ways); then I put a lot of clues (probably faulty, we figure) together that could have warned me this was going to happen, so now I am warning others (rather than admit his wife was sick of their life together).
In his collection, A Kind of Flying: Selected Stories, Carlson actually follows this story with one called "I Am Bigfoot," in which Bigfoot explains how easy it is for him to steal wives. But while we are reading "Bigfoot Stole My Wife," we believe we are in the presence of someone refusing to come face-to-face with reality.
What does your protagonist say under the pressure of covering something up? Write this and you will begin to learn secrets about your character's thinking and issues.
Drop Your Protagonist into An Emotional Moment That Will Demand An Action
Pick an emotional moment in the life of your protagonist, one where he or she is unsure, embarrassed, or afraid, and write the action of that moment. For my story of the girl leaving home with her boyfriend, it might be:
Smita boarded the bus a step behind Zarapet, her sari too thin for the cold Minnesota night. As soon as they found their seats, Zarapet told her he was returning to the terminal for something.
After you have set your character in the tumultuous moment, write on, giving the character something to do as she or he processes emotion.
Smita stared at Zarapet's back as he walked toward the door of the bus. One passenger pulled his leg quickly out of the aisle. Another's coat swayed a little from where Zarapet had brushed by. Smita placed the basket of food she'd prepared for the trip on the empty seat beside her. Through the window, she could see the driver talking with a dispatcher. As she stared, she noticed child-sized handprints on the window glass beside her. Feeling as if other people's eyes were on her, she opened the food basket to check on the pot of lentils she'd cooked extra thick so they wouldn't drip as she and Zarapat scooped them with naan. They hadn't spilled over. Smelling them, she realized how much she missed her family, the crackle of seeds popping in hot oil on this rainy day, her uncles' voices as they argued with her father about soccer and politics.
Smita began counting seconds. Was Zarapet coming back? As cold as she felt, she was glad the bus door was open—there was still time for him to return. She could smell the rain. Now it reminded her of poori, another food her mother made when it rained. The handprints on the window beside her seemed like the prints of ghosts, of children waving to help her to see something. Clutching her food basket, she rose and walked briskly toward the open door.
In this scene, what Smita can do in terms of action is limited to what is possible from her seat, what she can sense from the seat, and what that makes her think. Writing in scene, you quickly learn that the way characters interact with an environment helps you reveal who they are as well as their dilemmas. But very importantly, it also provides you with tools for creating a world that the reader enters and stays in. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner famously writes,
The most important single notion in the theory of fiction I have outlined—essentially the traditional theory of our civilization's literature—is that of the vivid and continuous fictional dream. According to this notion, the writer sets up a dramatized action in which we are given the signals that make us "see" the setting, characters, and events.
Use a protagonist from a story you are working on or a character that might become a protagonist and imagine that character having an emotional moment. Give that character a dilemma and an action that is possible to take because of the dilemma. In her teaching, former editor and script supervisor Dickey Nesenger calls this the three D's: dilemma plus discovery plus decision equals action.
Now, take your protagonist from the scene in which he or she is being false, and extend the character's interaction with the environment he or she is in. There will be things to touch, manipulate, look at, listen to, taste, and smell. All of the interactions with what's around the character will be avenues for letting the reader know the character's dilemma, personality, background, and emotional state.
Try this same exercise with the character in a different situation, perhaps one in which he or she is being truthful about the very same thing he or she was not being truthful about before.
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