Monday, October 19, 2009

Picking a Protagonist

Whose story is it anyway? One of the easiest mistakes a writer can make is to pick the wrong protagonist and it is also one of the hardest to correct. After several chapters of following the exploits of one character, we discover that he isn’t as interesting as we thought he would be. There is little choice but to rewrite major sections of the manuscript. Or it could be that we have a protagonist forced upon us because the story appears in a series. How we came to make the mistake is immaterial, but one way to avoid this mistake is to ask whose story it is.

Consider the Cinderella story. Whose story is it? It could have been that of the prince in search of a bride or it could have been the story of the the fairy, helping her goddaughter. It could have been the story of the step-mother, but it isn’t. This is Cinderella’s story.

Or consider the story of the twelve dancing princesses. There are plenty of characters we could have followed, but we follow the soldier who must discover their secret. Or consider the story of Dracula. Why do we follow Jonathan Harker rather Van Helsing? Simply put, it isn’t Van Helsing’s story. It could have been, but it isn’t.

The thing that defines whose story it is more than anything else is who changes the most during the events of the story. In Cinderella, it is she who changes the most. She goes from sitting in ashes to being a princess. The other characters change very little, if at all, so it makes sense that she would be the protagonist. In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, it is he who changes the most. In Dracula,  it is Jonathan Harker who experiences the most change. If we can identify who will change the most in a story, then it is easy to determine the best protagonist.

But, if we find ourselves in a situation where we have the protagonist forced upon us, the solution may not be to change the protagonist but to change the story. Suppose we are to tell the story of one of Cinderella’s step-sisters. We could tell the Cinderella story from their point of view, but that would only be a change in narration. To tell the step-sister’s story, we would have to find some event where she is the one who changes the most. Instead of telling of how Cinderella married the prince, what if we tell the story of how her step-sister falls in love with a captain in the king's guard. Now, she must experience genuine change to get what she wants. We could make Cinderella the narrator of this story, but she can no longer be the protagonist. She isn’t the person with the problem that must be solved.

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