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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Unmasking the protagonist

This morning I’ve been working on the plotting of my (hopefully) sixth book, When the Children Come. Normally, plotting (for me) consists of determining what happens to who and what they do about it. I normally weave in the character as I go along. But not today.

Henry James said ‘Character is plot’. To a science fiction writer this seems like a paradox, as typically we are driven by the ideas, by the world-building, by the technology, by the unknown – the sheer fascination of what just might be out there. This is perhaps why Scifi is a genre that a lot of people don’t read, because there is a trade-off between action/wonder/mystery and good old-fashioned character.

A few scifi readers get the balance right – Jack McDevitt, for one (I’m reading my 5th JMD novel at the moment, called Echo). But many do not, even the greats. I got some good character development into my first series, but that was more by accident, or due to them running around by head for nearly a decade while I wrote all four books.

So, this time, I thought I’d try and plot the character. Say what? Okay, in a book a character has an arc. At its simplest level, unless you’re writing a succession of books where the character doesn’t change noticeably (e.g. Jack Reacher), the character MUST change in some way between the beginning and the end of the book.   

When you meet somebody for the first time, you don’t know them. You get an impression, you talk about superficial things, and it can be pleasant or not, but you do not know them. We all wear masks. What you see is not what you get. This is good news for writers because READERS LOVE CONFLICT. A writer can portray a character as one thing, and then slowly reveal that actually (s)he is something different altogether, perhaps the opposite of what they appear to be to the outside world.

This ‘trickster’ quality to characters can be unmasked quickly by a piece of internal monologue, e.g. the character thinking to him or herself, so the reader knows what they really think, who they really are. But that’s not a good idea. It’s better to peel away layers, like an onion, so we get to understand them slowly. Remember, peeling an onion can make you cry.

Hang on a minute, I hear someone say. But that means I can’t go inside the character’s head without lying to the reader, without becoming an unreliable narrator! Not so. We all lie to ourselves. Denial is a very strong self-protection mechanism. Everyone lies, especially to themselves. You don’t have to hide their thoughts, you just have to show them, and maybe then – because readers don’t like being played – give some hint that maybe what the protagonist tells him or herself isn’t necessarily true.

The excerpt below is an example. Nathan hates kids. Or does he? Paragraph 1 is pretty damn clear on it. But then how do you explain para 2? And then there’s para 3. Nathan clearly thinks he hates kids, but now, as far as the reader is concerned, it’s only a maybe, because he’s clearly worried about them. And hopefully by now, so is the reader. The conflict is right there, on the first page of the novel. You know there’s more to this guy than meets the eye…

            Nathan hated children, always had. Especially babies, the way they screamed as soon as they were born – wasn’t that enough warning of what was to come? Little pissing, shitting, eating, crying machines. Maybe it wasn’t just infants, it was the way every woman and quite a few men on the planet went gaga every time they saw one, lost all sense of reason. Hormones kicked in, turned them all into Stepford freaks. And when the babies grew into toddlers, and then young kids, they weren’t much better: tantrums, more screaming, and kids learned to whine. How many business trips, restaurant dinners, theatre visits, you name it, were ruined by one small, precocious and, above all, loud brat and its doting, utterly useless parents? No discipline anymore. Nathan had sure been disciplined when he’d been a kid.
            He sat up, thought he heard a noise, picked up the rifle and crept to the door, opened it slowly, then wide, so the pale light from his room flooded out. They were all there, in the gym hall, sound asleep, two hundred kids. One or two jerked occasionally, nightmaring. He didn’t blame them. Sally, closest to his door, had kicked off the covers. He went over and with his free hand gently pulled them back up over her shoulder, careful not to wake her. Then he went back inside, pulled the door to without closing it completely.
He lay the rifle next to his chair. Two magazines, not nearly enough if they were discovered. The bed invited, but no way. He checked his pills again. Four left. It would have to do. He tried to relax, but not too much. He couldn’t move the kids until dawn, too risky before then. The others…
What had he been thinking before? Oh, yeah, right. How he hated kids. All his life he’d despised them, considered them a necessary evil. After the terrible twos, they learned first how to manipulate then divide and conquer their parents. Their cute phase. In a pig’s eye. And sibling camaraderie – wasn’t the story of Cain and Abel clear enough on that matter? Then there was school. He’d been bullied, but had seen a lot worse. Kids could be utterly cruel, mini Pol Pots, elf-like Hitlers. Once they reached nine or ten, they weren’t so bad. His sister’s kids, Archie and Josh, had been nine and eleven. It would have been Archie’s tenth birthday a week Tuesday. Nathan had actually bought him a present, for the first time. Both dead now. He shuddered. Good. Negative emotions would keep him awake. 

Of course it doesn’t have to be done on the first page, it can be the first chapter, or even the first ‘act’ of the book (whether it’s a 3, 4, or 5 act structure). That’s actually a good turning point for the protagonist to stare hard in the mirror and see something new there, or something forgotten, something lost.

So, this is what I’m doing at the moment, figuring out the pinch points for my protagonist (Nathan) where his internal world will begin to crack, then unravel, then slide and finally shatter, revealing who he really is or must become. But none of this happens in a vacuum, because the character arc needs to mesh seamlessly with the overall plot arc.

I’ll leave you with a few questions I pose myself, that help me navigate the character arc of the book, and hence plot the character.

What do they think they want?
What is it they really want or need?
What are the influences or secrets in their past that cement their denial?
What will be the external trigger to force them out of their comfort zone? Hint – this can relate in some way to their secrets – what breaks them out of it is at least in part linked to what put them there in the first place.
Who will be the external catalyst? Usually this has to be someone new in the protagonist’s life.

What must they sacrifice in order to change?

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