Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Protagonist Problem

Although I have not been working on my works in progress recently, sometimes I think about them. I have written most of two novels (and a very sketchy beginning of a third). The first novel is at the stage of the first draft being three quarters complete. The strength of this one is in its characters, and its primary weakness is plot. I became stuck, unable to bring the themes together into a satisfying conclusion. 

With the second novel, I completed an overly long first draft a few years ago with the help of a couple of NaNoWriMo Novembers. This novel has a more complex structure and plot than the first one, essentially a coming of age story nested within a coming of age story. Although most of the story is told from the female protagonist's perspective, some of it is expressed by the antagonist (who is my favourite character in the book). As well, a third character pops in midway through, briefly, and I have realized that she is quite important to the story, as her perspective serves as a counterpoint to a core identity problem that the protagonist is struggling with. I think I need to add more of this third character's voice. 

This second novel is at the revising stage. Doing the revisions seems so daunting that, while I have written a bunch of notes on what I need to do, I haven't really begun revising. One of my first readers made an excellent observation about my protagonist. We see the protagonist in adulthood and as a child. She is a white woman/girl who is concerned about and at the same time implicated in racist attitudes and social practices. My reader asked why she is so conflicted, as she seems to be doing and saying all the right (anti-racist) things. I was unable to answer this question at the time. 

Now, a couple of years later, I have come to recognize something that I am calling the protagonist problem afflicts both of my novels. While I have been able to develop the other characters quite well and have a good sense of their motivations, perspectives, and flaws, in both novels I have somewhat of a blind spot about the protagonists. I have trouble seeing why they do what they do. I am too close to them. My blind spot about these main characters is almost like the blind spot I have about myself and that each of us has about ourselves - that inability to look at one's self and actions with any kind of objective distance. However, I want to quickly point out that neither of the protagonists is autobiographical; I am not either of them and their experiences are not mine (although I recognize that there is some of me in each of my characters and in the dilemmas that they find themselves in).

Moreover, I feel ambivalent about each of these two main characters. Neither is a hero that is easy to identify with. In the first novel, the main character feels smugly superior to the two other significant characters that she has been thrown together with, and yet also is profoundly lacking in emotional self-awareness as she grieves a death of someone close to her. 

In the second novel, the main character is likeable as a young girl, but when we see her as a woman, she has isolated herself from her family. She has become judgmental and focused on efficiency and career, and is not very effective in being able to form or sustain relationships. The trouble is, how do we care about her and the situations that she is in throughout the book if we don't like her? 

The protagonist problem is this. I am writing each of these stories primarily from the point of view of the main character. Because I am seeing the world from her point of view, I suffer the same kind of lack of insight and self awareness that the character has, or that any any first person perspective has. I as the writer lack narrative distance, and this makes it hard for me to see the main character as a fully rounded complex person. Moreover, in both novels, I have given the protagonist have some personality characteristics that might not make the protagonist particularly endearing to the reader. 

I think that when I finally go back to writing and revising these works in progress, I am going to have to find a way, as the writer, to step back from the two protagonists. By stepping back and taking a longer view, I hope to see them as the characters that they are, interacting with the other characters on the stage of their story. 


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