Friday, 20 January 2012

“It’s not you, it’s me..." ( or, why I had to break up with my protagonist)


I’m working on my latest story and had a bit of a revelation this week; about my main character.

I’d done all the preparation I was supposed to do; you know, the character description. I'd worked out her family background, discovered her dream, her likes, dislikes, star sign, favourite colour and all that stuff. I knew what she looked like, what she ate for breakfast and when she clipped her toe nails, and more importantly I knew where she was (mentally and emotionally) at the beginning, middle and end of the plot. I knew exactly what she was going to do with her life over the next few months and how she was going to do it. In fact, I was so darn sure that I’d worked her out to perfection that I forgot to like her.

And so it hit me; the ugly truth - Alice Smith is dull; so dull, I don’t actually feel like writing about her anymore.

We all know how important good and likeable characters are to a story, but the revelation was that it’s not just the reader who needs them, it’s the writer. And without any passion for my character, it was getting kind of tedious writing about her. It’s like having one of those friends who is undoubtedly a really ‘nice’ person, but you end up making excuses as to why you can’t see them or why you have to cut the phone call short or would you believe it, “something has just come up and I’m going to have to cancel…”

Well I’m afraid that’s how I felt about poor old Alice. For all her niceness, and for all her great qualities and good intentions, she had to go.

We’ve parted company on quite good terms. We both know it wasn’t her fault and I said as much. “It’s not you, Alice. It’s me.” And I would like to keep in touch. But I’ve got my eye on someone else.

The new girl is  brazen, passionate and outspoken. I don’t know her name yet or what she looks like, but I can hear her voice and I’m drawn to the page by her crazy language and off-beat observations. She shakes things up and gets things moving. She's active, proactive and reactive and almost certainly insane. She may get me into trouble and cause all sorts of problems before I reveal her to the world, but at this distance I am already falling in love. I've started to sneak out of bed in the morning, just to be alone with her, and when real life intrudes on our time together she is never far from my thoughts.

If, or should I say when, she makes it into the final first draft, I may have to tone her down a little for fear of offending sensitive readers, but for the duration of ‘the write’, at least I will have been entertained.

If you’ve got any thoughts about a kick-ass name for her, please feel free to suggest.

16 comments:

  1. I love the sound of your new heroine, Wendy. And don't tone her down too much either! Readers have to fall in love with the protagonist too and everyone loves a well-drawn, definite hero or anti-hero.

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  2. Ha! I love this post. Killing your darlings is always a nightmare but at least Alice understands. Think the new character sounds spectacular. I look forward to hearing more about her.

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  3. Great post, Wendy. Making a radical decision like that can feel so liberating, can't it?

    I hope we're never speaking on the phone though, and you suddenly 'have to go'... x x

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  4. Thanks everyone for comments. Still no name, but word count is on the up.
    Heather? Mmmm nice name, but is it a little close to home? x

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  5. It's true, you have to be a bit in love with your characters. I wrote an entire draught of a novel overlooking the fact that the heroine, whom I saw as an early Bridget Jones prototype with literary leanings,came over to others as merely a spineless victim. I'm torn; I know that readers have to invest in the characters and want to love them, but there are notable exceptions to this quasi-rule, i.e. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, where her skill as a writer overrides the fact that her hero is an unattractive, unimaginative loser. Why did we hang in on that one? Answering my own question; I realise that it must lie in her 'skill'. She gave us enough to hang on to. Dammit, I hate that woman! She's so good. Thanks for the interesting post.

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    1. In novels, as in life, we do still fall for unimaginative losers if they are well written. I've never read The Shipping News, but just googled it to discover that Quoyle is so called because it is a coil
      of rope only one layer thick, flat, "so that it may be walked on..." A challenging choice of character, but I bet Annie loved him all the same.

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  6. I'm hopeless with names, but a recent source of inspiration was brewing terminology and beer names, out of which came Ester Barleycorn, her parents Burton and Maris; nemesis Conner Smallbeer and his fat mate Guzzler; Sam Smith and many others. Heather is a flavouring for beer, but not as common as hops so how about Heather Hopper? Just a beery thought.

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    1. Am loving your character names and you may have started something here. What about Stella, (Obviously a Blonde) and her Buddy, Hook Norton?

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    2. Hook Norton is excellent and I think he can be "Hooky" as a nickname since he loves angling. Or sea fishing. Yes, I see him. Likes beer as well. My wife's name is Stella and she hates beer, but it has to be used. This is a great blog, btw. Mine is very general as I fear blogging too much writerly material will take me away from the boggarts. http://morristraveller.blogspot.com/

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  7. Hi Wendy
    Love Hook as a name.
    I know a kick ass girl called Ruby (but I think you've got one of those)
    What makes me like a person and a character is understanding their deep intentions what's underneath their intention to hurt their mum is it that they want to protect their dad for example. Also what makes me like a person is are they interested as well as interesting. Or for a baddie, in spite of their horrible behaviour is there a reason for it? For the baddest baddie is there a grain of humanity so that when push comes to the inevitable shove that grain will wriggle its way to the surface like a burnt cornflake and when that baddie gets it we are that little bit sorry.

    There that's me. Is 'Ethel' set to make a comeback d'you think?

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    1. Hi Jan - Thank you for that - I too love Hook as a name, although haven't decided if he will make it into my WIP - however, I am going with Stella for the main protagonist because she is (in my eyes at least) a star. Ethel? Mmmm, tough one. Maybe one day?
      And I totally agree with you about motivation - that we can love even the baddest of characters if their deep intentions are pure. The burnt cornflake metaphor is spot on; to find the humanity in everyone has got to be the goal of all children's writers. I hope I manage to achieve that!

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  8. Stella's a great name too.
    Ethel could be a future challenge;o)

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  9. Wow Wendy, this is a great post. I'm having issues with a supporting character right now and think maybe this is the way to go with it. Good luck with your new MC! My name contribution is prim and proper Victoria Elizabeth Xavier, but the name she goes by is Vex ;)

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    1. I love Vex. And if you do't use her, I will! She sounds like a proper bad girl. x

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    2. Ooooh so glad you like it, by all means, use it. I made it up jsut for you!
      Xx

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Thanks for commenting.