Your Protagonist and You

Morning/afternoon/evening… whatever time of day you’re reading this, I hope you’re having a good one!

I’m writing this on a Monday evening, and I have a multitude of ideas for my novel this week. I’m a determined woman.

Working on a novel isn’t just ‘write a chapter and move on’ though, is it? If it were that simple I’d have written hundreds by now; as we all would. Considerations have to be made on the plot, the setting, the narrative arc, the genre, the sub genre… you get the drift. I may end up with a headache if I carry on listing what us authors carry with us day in and day out, but what I really want to write about today is characterisation.

Characterisation is much more complex than just simply deciding ‘This man/woman is going to be this age and look like this’. My goodness, the lengths it takes to create a ‘perfect character’… yet, the perfect character is in fact, imperfect. I think it’s such a wonderful thing, however, to be able to create that. Your protagonist is who your reader is rooting for. You have to make the reader love them just as much as you do. And you end up learning so much about them throughout the process, it is never complete pre-first draft, and you even start to learn things about yourself too, I dare say.

So I have been musing a lot about the relationship between the protagonist you’re writing in the mindset of, and you, as the creator. My protagonist is called Saffron Blacksmith,  and I came up with the idea of her when I was the grand old age of fifteen. Of course she’s developed since then. I’ve developed since then too (I’m sure that a twenty-two year old still behaving like a secondary schooler would probably be quite concerning). That imaginary character is very real to me.

Yet the process in creating not just her, but the characters surrounding her, have all changed. Naturally, but also consciously. The thoughts have been truly swirling around in my head and thus decided to write this blog post; not at all a cliche that the writer writes to clear thoughts, not in the slightest… well, here it is.

1. Fatal Flaw

I always loved a good bit of Greek Mythology. And what was a common theme? The fatal flaw. I think it’s a fantastic device. A protagonist should have many imperfections – nobody wants to read a book where the main character does nothing wrong and feels nothing out of turn, as that isn’t relatable. Picking one flaw, however, that they are not even aware of, that isn’t discussed, yet has such a deep meaning to the character and the novel, gives the writer so much material. I did this sort of unconsciously with Saffron. I’ve now nearly finished the first manuscript, but halfway through I realised that Saffron, despite me thinking very carefully into her character long before I got to writing it, suddenly presented me with a realisation, halfway through a simple conversational scene; she has a fatal flaw, and is going to be something that I go back and muse upon when I edit.

2. Consistency

I struggle with consistency, especially given the gap I took in writing when the day (well, more evening) job and studying took its hold. I went back to writing, and felt quite confident, except something was missing. Chapter One Saffron presented herself with a fair amount of witty boldness, yet Chapter Ten Saffron was lacking it. I’d made a purposeful effort to do this, however… the surface character and the true character is a tricky recipe. The circumstance that Saffron was in the said chapter  disallowed for too much wit, as it wouldn’t be appropriate, yet can you just eradicate fully an aspect of a person? I realised that the true character has to present itself somehow; perhaps the devices involved might be different than one first planned.

3. You, the author

I’ll admit it, I draw on myself for aspects of Saffron. Before you all think I’m that arrogant, hear me out. Saffron is in no way like me, really. I doubt I would have made the decisions she makes (although in her/my defence I don’t live in a dystopian world within speculative fiction) but its less about what feelings and emotions you give the character, but how you write it, truly. I’m not going to give too much away, but there’s a scene where Saffron is called out upon by one of her friends; it’s the last chapter I’ve written so far. I would have responded differently personally, however I decided to write Saffron to be indignant, yet failing to attempt a moral high-ground, with underlying angst and sadness. I’ve been there myself, and allowing myself to go back there, remember it, and write it out, with the heart of my protagonist, I managed to really find the description, the metaphors and make it read very humanly. I realised then just how much, whether good or bad, whether you’re applying escapism or not, your protagonist is an extension of you.

4. Hero versus anti-hero

At the end of the day, I really did struggle with this one. Your protagonist is the hero. But I’m a glutton for an anti-hero. Someone who doesn’t have the ‘I’m going to save the day’ mentality, somebody who doesn’t necessarily want to. This is entirely dependent on genre, bearing in mind, so while I’m writing speculative fiction, there is more wiggle room to play around with this concept with other genres. I’ve written fantasy before, however, and writing a protagonist within that genre does mean more strict adherence to traditional heroic characterisation. I realised while characterising Saffron that the way I’m going to write her as the hero, is that I’m going to give her a goal that the audience want her to achieve. But Saffron doesn’t have superpowers, or live in a fantasy universe. Saffron is just one of many within the dystopian universe, she is neither hero nor villain, but she’s heroic by simply wanting the best. You can write whatever, however, as long as your character’s intentions are for a greater purpose, learning about themselves along the way, then they’re a hero. My novel has no clear right/wrong or good/bad yet Saffron loves the people around her and wants everything to be okay. That’s enough for a hero, sometimes.

I hope if you’ve read this far, it means I’ve written something worth reading. It was just my own musings, if you will. The character you write is personal. The character you write shapes your entire novel, and also, to conclude once more, is an extension of you. Many writers spend years forming their debut, with their protagonist at the helm. The process can be full of conflicting thoughts, and this is solely my personal experience.

My Twitter handle is @mollshallett. If you have any comments, tweet me! I’m generally fascinated by its subjectivity.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing you writing tips. I am also writing my novel now. I am using this isolation as my time to work on my WIP. Character development is my favourite part in writing. I usually create my main characters based on my celebrity crushes. I watch my celebrity crushes videos on YouTube, follow their IG updates, and implement their qualities to my MC.

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  2. I was particularly interested by your comment that the fantasy genre is proscriptive when it comes to heroes. That, in essence, they’re more compelled to be heroic than any mere protagonist in lit fic or, say, the depressive, divorced, alcoholic detective that always works so well in mysteries. Is it just a fact, or do you think of this as a flaw? Something fantasy as a genre ought to push back against?

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    • You make a very strong point with the mystery but I was purely commenting on the standard plot device for that genre and how one may characterise based on that. I don’t think the genre needs to push back against it; I think the writer can embrace the idea of the ‘hero’ and write something brilliant, or they could push back and still create a fantastic protagonist. The idea of a ‘hero’ is a grey area as opposed to black and white, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

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