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Who's the protagonist?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Weaver, Oct 1, 2012.

  1. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    The situation: I have a novel in which there is no perfectly clear-cut, obvious Main Character. There are a few (3) characters who are all equally important in the story. There's no problem with multiple viewpoints or whatnot; that is kept to an even mix, and no reader (even the psycho one who insisted that one secondary character was actually the protagonist because 'he followed orders and didn't rock the boat') ever said that they had difficulty keeping track of who was the POV for a given scene.

    Loyal Reader made a passing suggestion (I don't know how serious he was) last week about trying to rewrite this novel in first person. I don't think it would work. For one thing, there's the matter of distance actually strengthening emotional impact sometimes, the old advice that 'Your reader won't cry if your character does it for them' - and I want to do more than make the reader cry, I want to make him/her bleed, metaphorically. Like Hannah Stonewell said, 'I want to write the kind of story that rips the reader's heart from their chest and flings it sunward, then catches it and hands it back to them, burning...' For another thing (and this is the drawback that LR saw immediately), writing the story in first person would require narrowing the POV characters to just one.

    The usual criteria (who hurts the most/has the most at stake, who has the most motivation - and ability - to act, etc.) don't work, because they apply pretty much equally to all three major characters. The character without whom the story could not happen is not, for several chapters, in a position to influence events. The character who has the most ability to influence events also knows too much about what's really going on, and making him the single MC would ruin the suspense. And as for 'who hurts the most/has the most at stake'... That would depend on your definition. One character wouldn't die, but he would lose just about everything he holds dear. Another character would die - and die horribly - if things went wrong.

    I'm not sure I'll try writing the story in first person, but I would like to have an answer if I'm ever asked who is the single main character. Any suggestions on how to figure that out?
     
  2. You can have a multiple protag story. If there are three characters who are equally important, then those are your main characters.
     
  3. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    Well, yes, I'm aware that it is possible - and permissible - to have more than one POV character. However, I am sometimes asked how I would narrow it down if I had to pick just one, and I don't know how to do that in this instance.
     
  4. yachtcaptcolby

    yachtcaptcolby Minstrel

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    Out of curiosity...who's asking you to pick just one, and why?
     
  5. FireBird

    FireBird Troubadour

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    This is not true at all. Multiple POV's in the first person have been done well before.
     
  6. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    Yes. I have a few such novels in my collection. (The first that comes to mind is The Crystal Gryphon, by Andre Norton.) HOWEVER, that is again not what I'm asking with my original post.

    IF I am to narrow down the number of "protagonists" in my novel to just one, HOW would I determine which of my three current major characters that should be?

    (I'm sorry if the question was unclear before. I'm not offering this as an excuse, mind you, but I do have autism, and all the experts say that we're notoriously incapable of communicating with words.)
     
  7. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

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    I have a similar situation, but with four main characters, (possibly six) all equally important, each with his own sub plot, and as with you the absolute central character isn't always there to influence the events but an equally important character is.

    In mine, the overall absolute central protag will be defined by his airtime, the most important will have most airtime, the most chapters, the most amount of words in his POV. Added to this is a situation that will boil down to the last man standing - sort of. At least, that's the plan.
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2012
  8. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    - Some publishers and agents want, in the synopsis paragraph of a query letter, that there be only one main character listed.

    - When pitching a novel (that dreaded situation where the author has only about 30 seconds to describe the whole story), the author needs to be able to say 'the story is about THIS person.' Agents and publishers tend not to trust an author who cannot narrow it down, seeing (wrongly or not) the lack of such focus as amateurish.

    To clarify, no, it's not Loyal Reader who's telling me to pare the number down. He likes the novel the way it is. It was simply his musings about attempting to tell the story in first person that made me think of this other issue, that of trying to determine which of my major characters would be THE main character, if I had to pick just one.
     
  9. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    If current television is telling us anything, it's that a story can be extremely powerful if done with an ensemble cast. I think that's something we writers should embrace.

    If you have to list a protagonist, just pick one at random. But don't change the nature of your work - especially if it's good - just to please someone insisting on a form submission.
     
  10. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    Those 'form submissions' are annoying - we all know that - but they are one of the (myriad) hoops that a writer is required to jump through in order to make it past the initial weeding-out stage before their work is even looked at by an agent or publisher.

    I like my 'ensemble cast' (I like your use of screen/stage metaphor - I use that myself a lot, referring to very minor characters as 'walk-ons,' for example), and I'm not going to get rid of any characters just so I can simplify ('nerf'/flatten/make bland) the story. I like complexity, and I need multiple viewpoints to get that with the story I'm telling. My own inclination, if I were to pick an MC 'at random,' would be to go with the one who is important to the events in the story primarily as a catalyst, the one without whom the story would not happen... But that would give the wrong impression, and lead to disappointed expectations once the reader sees that, no, Jason Grey isn't IN a lot of scenes, and he's NOT the character with the most ability to control events...

    I don't know. Maybe this is another case where I'm overthinking the problem. It's just that I've had so many problems with this story, so many beta readers (well, total strangers on peer-review sites) tell me that I'm 'doing it wrong' because they don't agree with me on who the important characters are. (Isn't this supposed to be one of those rare 'when in doubt, the author knows best' situations?)

    I do thank you for the encouragement not to change my work because of someone else's expectations. That helps.
     
  11. Jared

    Jared Scribe

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    I would ask a few questions.

    1) Who has a largest/most significant character growth/development arc?
    2) Who has the largest role in the main plot? Whose absence would be most detrimental to the plot?
    3) Who endures the most pain in the main plot?
    4) Who makes/leads the decision that takes the ensemble cast from reaction to action?
     
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  12. Sheriff Woody

    Sheriff Woody Troubadour

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    Coming from a film background, I have dealt with this issue many times.

    The key to finding the protagonist of your story is to first understand what the main goal of the story is, because the character who acts directly on that goal is the protagonist. That character is struggling against the opposition created by the antagonist and the only one who can bring about the end of the story.

    Sure, you can have a story with multiple viewpoints without a clear-cut hero, but going this route typically makes it more difficult to maintain overall focus. But it can be done.

    In fact, I see it more and more in television dramas than ever before. Who is the protagonist in The Wire? Who knows. Doesn't stop it from being television's greatest achievement.
     
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  13. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    Good questions, Jared. They break down the usual ways of choosing MC into something that makes more sense to me - very helpful. If you had to choose one of those questions to be the most important for determining main character, which would it be? (My answers are not the same for all four.)
     
  14. Jared

    Jared Scribe

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    I would probably choose (2), as long as the role they have is active. (By which I mean they're not a living MacGuffin.)

    A less-important character could have a huge growth arc or be the one that triggers the move from reaction to action, but if they're not the most integral to the story's plot. If there is a character that ties the group together and is wound up the most, I would pitch the story focusing on them.
     
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  15. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    Well, that narrows the choice down to just two, at least. Now I'm going to have to do some serious thinking. Thanks for the advice.
     
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