Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How to Write a Book Prelims: The Protagonist

Å begynne på hjemme, på den hjerte, er beste...
When designing a narrative you would be surprised to know that when I write a book, or any work of short fiction, I start with the protagonist first, not the story or setting or anything else. You see, the function of a protagonist in any narrative is central to plot. The protagonist reacts to the setting, the characterless involved in the story, and obviously the villains. At the genesis of every plot, it is the protagonist that decides where everything is going to go. If your protagonist is thoughtful, by which meaning your protagonist that will react to a problem defensively, the plot may take the hero of the story down a guarded and inwardly cynical journey that is more psychological by nature. If the hero is reactionary, then the protagonist will act offensively when presented with a conflict in the book. They will be brawlers, or adventurer types that scoff and grin, and win the hearts of the readers. Obviously there are so many angles each route could take. I propose there are 3 types of protagonists. By no means are these exhaustive categories  I simply see the protagonist through these lenses.

The Thinker - Inward

Marlow from Heart of Darkness, or the unknown narrator of Notes on the Underground, would fit into this category. These are the kinds of the protagonists that cause us to question what occurs in the narrative. Can an inward, thoughtful narrator truly convey imagery that is unbiased? In the midst of trauma and loss, do they themselves hallucinate or suppress what they see to cope? These are very internalized heroes. They tend to be observers. If there is a fight in a bar they will not intervene, but simply watch and take in the scene. If they do introduce themselves into conflict it will be to prove their existence, to say, "here I am!" and not to simply assume the role of the hero. Concerning plot, they will contribute significantly in an intangible capacity. Like Marlow, they will assume the role as a foil to the nemesis of the story. They will grow in the story psychologically, as their perspective changes to assist the plot. To illustrate this I'll give you an example of what this looks like:

What can I do? That is the question that gnaws at my mind. I took my job at the Pentagon because I dared to dream of a future where the "bad" people are put behind bars. That was then. Now I sit behind a desk, stamping papers, wearing a wrist guard to keep my Carpal tunnel Syndrome in check. The "bad" people don't go behind bars. No. They are executed and buried somewhere, where the world can't find them. Behind my desk I see them. I see where they go. I watch as the Marine takes out his standard issue, and presses the barrel to his temple. I watch the body fall to the ground, into the shallow hole they dug, never to be seen again. I see it all happen in 9mm, and then I burn it, and I never see them again. 

Notice how the protagonist here is idealistic, or battles against the reality of his station. Protagonists always struggle against constructions of authority. Here, it is his identity as a government employee, and his disillusionment that he faces. He fulfills his purpose, but the justice carried out is not what he expected. In this case he will act in proxy. He will not be involved in action. That is not his style. He will act on the peripheral. His weapon is paperwork and systems. As we watch from the sidelines, we will see him contemplate his role as it changes.

The Talker - Conciliatory

When I say, "The Talker," I refer to a large category, but specifically I want you to think about a character who is put into a position where they feel uncomfortable. The previous category of protagonist would attempt to extricate himself either physically or psychologically from the situation and the next category we will look at would take an offensive position in the tenuous argument. Here we are in the middle ground, and where the most common literary characters reside. Chances are, it is this kind of hero that you will decide to work with. They are more malleable than Thinkers, and have a richer personality profile than Boasters. These are the Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and Arthur Dents of literature. Concerning plot movement, a Talker is actively involved, generally being enmeshed in the conflict that drives the story. Frodo carries the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings as this kind of character. He will still battle and face down evil, but it's not his primary mode. He is more prone to take an assessment of the situation, willing to act, but not set to jump into conflict at a moment's notice. Here's an example of such a character in action.
"You're a chicken! Chicken!" 
That stupid Davey thinks I won't do it. I've done it before! He looks stupid... like a squawking chicken! He bet me ten cents that I wouldn't ride the sled down the big hill behind Tommy's house. It's like, one of the biggest hills in the whole neighborhood. Before Daddy got on a plane to go shoot the bad guys, where they don't talk like us, and where funny clothes -- I hear their eyes are sown shut, and look different! -- he said that I shouldn't go down the hill. Uncle Mark got hurt real bad, one year and had to stay in bed, in the huge white building in the city. I think I can do it though. I've gotten a lot better. I wish Davey wasn't here though. I want to go down the hill, I really do. I think Daddy didn't want me too because he wanted to take me someday. But I can do it. I can do it and be strong, like Daddy.

This unnamed narrator puts us in a position of healthy balance between thought and action. Here the protagonist is a young child of either gender put in a position of growing up and taking on responsibility in the absence of their role model, in this case, their father. These protagonists are fluid to start with. They will change and be willing to change. They might be scared, or reticent to perform actions in the story that drive the plot but they have an awareness of their own development throughout the narrative.

The Boaster - Emboldened 

Last but not least, as the cliche goes, the Boaster is the most simple Protagonist to write. I would put the boaster as primarily being a secondary character in a narrative, but they can also have the main spotlight in any book. Boasters I feel are relegated to more simple literary forms like pulp fiction or serialized literature. They often will drive the plot forcefully through a narrative because they are simply active, or have a thirst to progress form their current predicaments. Guy Gardener comes to mind, the Green Lantern Corp bruiser from DC. He is impetuous and ready to act, while his personality is very rudimentary, his motivations for recognition and approval of his peers are very binary, and the reader understands this. Also Lobo from DC I find to be this kind of character. These are though characters! Escaping from this world, you would also find some of these in The Outsiders, but my favorite example is Gimli from Lord of the Rings. He's just fun and very ready to get into action. These characters will help you most if you supply one in a secondary position because they will be easy to leverage to move the plot along. Lastly, here's an example of this character:

"You think you are better than me? You don't do good at makin' this unappealing..." 
General Tei encircled me, holding a pair of brass knuckles, vintage from the 21st century. He loved antiques, especially those of human design. He hit me in the face, and feel some teeth come out. But it only makes me more mad. 
"What do you expect to get from me? I got nothing you want. Better that you let me go, so I can kill you." 
"Brave words for a deadman, Mr. Scott. I do not desire to take days off from my vacation to interrogate rabble-rousers and thugs. My family will be very disappointed!" After he shouts in my face he grabs the cuff of my fiber mesh tunic and hits me twice in the stomach, making me want to vomit.  
"Maybe I should talk, you know? Then I can distract you long enough to escape." 
"There is no getting out. You will succumb to this reasoning very soon Mr. Scott. Very few have lived long enough to tell other prisoners what we do in this room. But the Galactic Order still thinks that I am a peace loving general. I plan to be, and I am honored that you would select me to give your eulogy." 
"Is that right?" 
Stepping back the General nods, his arms akimbo and boasting. 
"What are you going to do? I should just leave you here to rot, and watch you die slow from hunger." 
"Well that's just not going to work..."  
"You see," I pause to hold up my hands unshackled, "I picked my handcuffs!"

Mr. Scott here could be anyone, but I decided to make him more of a secret agent, or an undercover figure. Bruisers I think at heart are arrogant, and very self determined. Therefore, these characters tend to externalize their actions. They like to talk and justify who they are to the reader and their enemy. They declare their existence by being subversive in the narrative and hold their ground in doing so.

This is definitely my longest post I have done thus far. But this should give you a well rounded idea of what to expect in the kinds of protagonists that you have available to you. Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will give you a solid frame work to go by when you write your first book. See you Thursday!

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