Helga’s Post # 30 — Something odd happened as I read through my manuscript. No, that’s not quite truthful. I knew it was always there, whenever I sat down to write. In a subliminal sort of way. But now, as I start editing the first draft in anticipation of our group’s retreat, I let it bubble to the surface, unbridled.
It’s about the persona of my protagonist. Not only my protagonist. Any fiction writer’s protagonist. I asked myself whether we are creating characters in our own image. Are we hiding our autobiographies inside our manuscripts?
You bet we do.
I didn’t realize that when I started writing my story, I was unsure what kind of person I wanted to create. I guess I wanted her to be many things, and I endowed her with different traits, depending on whose ‘How-To’ book I was reading at the time. Donald Maass put it aptly in ‘The Fire in Fiction’:
‘Heroes who are nothing but good, noble, unswerving, honest, courageous, and kind to their mothers will make your readers want to gag.’
Duly noted. So I aimed for my protagonist to be heroic, but with flaws. Yet flaws not so serious as to render her a wuss or be fatal. She should be able to feel deep emotions, without being melodramatic. She should be capable, but not boisterous. She should be unique, without flaunting it.
She should be… she should be… oh bloody hell.
Fine lines, all of them. I made changes to my protagonist time and again, with the result that she ended up being three or more people all in one. She was a total scatterbrain, without focus or conviction. I ended up with a flimsy character. The kind that may prompt the dreaded question, “Why should I care about this person?”
I sort of knew it when I started writing the first draft, but wasn’t ready to confront it.
Common wisdom dictates to ‘just get the story down’ and don’t spend time on details in the first draft. Makes tons of sense, but I believe it cannot extend to character development. This is where most of the groundwork has to be done, before writing the first sentence of Chapter One. The story begins and ends with the characters, and the plot is the excuse to write about them.
So what did I do before I realized the errors of my ways?
I tried to hide her imperfections with clever plot twists. And with lots of secondary characters, to shift the focus away from her. And with planting enough little traps so the reader may not notice just what a nincompoop my protagonist really was.
It backfired of course. I had to reinvent her. Not just with little things like voice, or colour of her eyeshadow, or her preference for men with six-packs rather than six (high) figure bank accounts. This girl had to acquire a moral compass and a steely determination among other things. Her ‘angry outbursts’, her ‘tear-streaked cheeks’, all met their just destiny: the delete button.
Triage was in order.
I had to get into my character’s head. And she into mine. Pleased to meet you. The real YOU that is. It’s taken a while.
“What made you decide to show the reader that deep down I am really insecure?” She asked me.
Me: “I wanted to make you honest. Before I changed you, I couldn’t tell what made you tick. Not even I, your creator, knew who you were. So now, I can see through you. I can read you like a book, pardon for putting it this way. I can tell how insecure you are by the way you try to hide it. By being cocksure. In your face. Especially to your boss.”
“Interesting. What am I so insecure about?”
Me: “Well, you know, you always feel inadequate when you meet people with status. Especially people who had a higher education. You always want to run with the fast crowd, but you were scared shitless they would figure out you’re an imposter.”
“You mean I wanted to break out of my social class, my background?”
Me: “Yeah, that’s it. You put your finger on it.”
“Wow. That sounds so Freudian. And it sounds like an image of yourself.”
Me (long pause, clearing throat): “Well, you know, the more I wrote about you, the better I understood you. On one level I really wanted you to break out of your mold, and you did in a way, with your ceaseless ambition. Yet, how shall I put it, you never quite fit in.”
“I know. Because I feel your tether on every page. As soon as I think I’ve been accepted as one of the ‘beautiful’ people, meaning the smart and the powerful, you pull me right back again on that leash of yours. But the really cruel thing you did to me is something different.”
Me: “I’m not cruel! Not deliberately anyway.”
“Well, you are. Because by now you’ve moved me so far beyond my poor background, that they’ve closed ranks back there. They don’t want me any more. Calling me a social climber, a traitor to my kin. You’ve placed me squarely in no-man’s land. I’m an outsider. I don’t belong.”
Me: “There’s no denying that. But understand, I’m not writing Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You are never going to ride into the sunset on a white stallion with your handsome prince.”
“Can I at least have sex? It doesn’t have to be on a stallion.”
Me: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You already had some in the past, and what good did that do you?”
“But that was back story. Your readers hate that. Let’s do it in real time. Please?”
Me: “Let me think about it. I still have to write The End anyway. Just don’t you ask me what’ll happen to you, okay? Keep in mind though the world is a cruel place. It’s a jungle out there.”
“You’re gonna kill me. Right?”
Me: “Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not healthy to harbor such morose thoughts. Think positive. Whatever happens, I will be fair. And I will try my best to avoid a lot of blood and gore. There has to be some, you understand, because we want to sell the book…”
“Please, don’t. Otherwise…”
Me: “You’re threatening me? Listen, sweetheart, all I need to do is stretch my pinkie and push that button in the upper right hand corner of my keyboard. The button that all you characters hate with a vengeance.”
(Laughter): “You won’t. Because you want to sell your damn book, don’t you?”
Image: Book Cover for ‘Grimm Fairy Tales Volume 12’
(Joe Brusha, Ralph Tedesco)