Protagonists: Where to begin?

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WRITING

protagonist frodo

Protagonists:

This week’s writing tip comes from a recent conversation I had with a couple of writing friends. We started talking about the traits of our protagonists, when a realization hit me: I’d seen protagonists described in all sorts of ways, but never had I seen anyone (at least that I recall) point out the most important trait of a protagonist, especially in fantasy or science fiction. Before I divulge this tidbit, let’s run down the list of important traits in a protagonist.

One: They have to be sympathetic

Well, yes and no. While most protagonists are sympathetic, there have been quite a few in the realms of fantasy that have not been and even a couple that have been quite dark. Thomas Covenant in the first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever was anything but sympathetic. Wounded? Yes, but he was also angry, selfish, violent, and stubborn. Another example of the anti-hero is Elric in the Stormbringer series by Michael Moorcock. So, in the end, no, a protagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic.

Two: They should be physically attractive/powerful.

This depends on the genre. It would be hard to find a romance novel with ugly protagonists. The whole purpose of the genre is to provide an escape. I might want to read about a guy who’s not very attractive, but then again, I’m not the target audience. In fantasy, there have been quite a few protagonists that have been less than handsome. In my current series, I went out of my way to paint the two participants of my main romance in less than the usual glowing terms, going so far as to state that most people would consider my heroine’s nose too big. In the excellent novel, Magician, by Raymond E. Feist, Pug, the main character is a very ordinary looking boy who grows into an ordinary looking man.

Three: They have to want something.

Yes. Absolutely. Every protagonist in every novel I’ve ever read has been in or put in a situation where they want something desperately.

But there is another quality your protagonist needs and surprisingly, it has more to do with you as a writer than it does your reader. It’s an inside/out way of looking at your main character, it you will.

Your main character has to be….drum roll please…..IGNORANT.

Yes, that right. In order for you to write convincing scenes and convincing dialogue, your main character is required to display ignorance, usually on a grand scale. Every protagonist I’ve ever read shares this fundamental characteristic. Here’s a quick rundown: Bilbo, Frodo, Thomas Covenant, Pug, Harry Dresden, Errol Stone (mine), Willet Dura (also mine), Rand al’ Thor, Kal and Shallan. You name it, they’re ignorant. Each of these stories is a tale of people caught in circumstances they must struggle to understand and they wander blindly through the unknown hoping that they can somehow manage to survive until the know enough to act.

So, when you’re outlining your next work, take a moment to think about your protagonist. What does he know at the beginning of the story? If he knows too much, it will guarantee that most of your scenes and much of your dialogue will have the sound of author intrusion. You’ll be trying to communicate information to your reader that your protagonist already knows.

The fun of stories is discovering the world and the danger while we experience it in the skin of the protagonist. So, when you’re outlining your story, think about the importance of your character’s ignorance.

EDUCATION:

euclid

Last post I talked about the elephant in the room. This week, I’d like to take a moment to offer an explanation about the difficulty teachers face in accomplishing their stated task. I’m not looking for sympathy. Honestly, if I thought I needed any, I would quit and go do something else. That reminds me of a story, but that will have to wait. Let’s get back to the teaching environment in most high schools. First, understand that because of social promotion, most high school classrooms are a mixture of ability levels.

An English teacher for example may have an enthusiastic student who is already reading on the college level and a student who is barely reading on the third grade level. And every level in between. In math, the story is no different. I’ve had classes with students who could have easily grasped the concept of taking the derivative of the volume of a sphere with respect to the radius to get the formula for surface area. I’ve also had classes where if I asked students to add two single-digit numbers without a calculator, a third of the students would be counting on their fingers. Really.

So the plight of the teacher is really quite simple. We don’t get to choose who we teach and we don’t get to decide what we teach. I have a set of mathematics standards that I have to teach in order to be in compliance with the state and my district. Every year, teachers are evaluated based on how well their students performed on the state benchmark test. Understand that these tests don’t cover all the remedial material that teachers have to go through just to get their students to a place where they might understand the actual course material. No. The tests cover the standards for Algebra II or English III or whatever.

So what happens in most classrooms? Well, it’s really quite simple. With all these different skill levels, teachers have to choose their battles. It usually comes down to a decision. Does the teacher “teach to the middle” to try and catch as many students as he/she can or do they “teach to the bottom” to try and help those students who most desperately need it? Either way, some students will be left out. There are a lot of strategies to overcome this, but the problem with most of these is that they’re intended for a few students and the students that require remediation are often the majority in many schools. Remember the numbers from last week. In one Tennessee district 15% of the students are doing math at grade level and 25% are reading/writing at grade level. Even in the best district in Tennessee the numbers are only a little over 40%.

I’m going to let you think about this for a while. Next time, we’re going to take a look at the improvement/achievement dichotomy.

MISCELLANEOUS:

My publisher has set a deadline for the next manuscript: mid-March. Prayers, as always, are appreciated.

I’m still trying to learn how to play jazz piano. This is probably good for me, because it’s teaching me empathy for my own students.

I’m down about 6 pounds since New Year’s. Let’s just say there’s still a considerable ways to go before I can ditch the cholesterol medication. Tonight I cooked cabbage soup for dinner, no meat. Not bad, but I find myself craving cheese.

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