Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Problem to Solve

Yesterday, we looked at picking a protagonist and my claim was that the protagonist should be the character whose story it is, the character changed the most by the story. We must either choose that protagonist or change the story to fit the protagonist. I mentioned the problem that must be solved. Whether we are changing the story or selecting the protagonist for the story, we must consider the problem that must be solved. It is that problem that drives the change that occurs and thus the selection of a protagonist.

Usually, the problem is several problems and if we were to look at only the beginning and ending of a story, we would see a character with a problem at the beginning and a character that has solved the problem through change at the end. But not just any problem will do and that’s why we make mistakes in choosing a protagonist. All characters face problems, but if the problem a character faces at the beginning of a story isn’t basic enough, then our protagonist will never be able to hold an audience.

Consider two characters. As we begin our story, Dr. Jennifer Stanton has a problem. Ten patients have come into her office complaining of symptoms for which she has no explanation. She must find an answer and soon. Another character, Wilma Johns, also has a problem. She is raising her granddaughter because the child’s mother won’t. One day, the girl comes home from school feeling sick. Wilma takes her to see the doctor, but the doctor doesn’t know what to do and it is getting worse. If these two characters are part of the same story, whose story is it? Dr. Stanton has a problem, but the stakes aren’t that high. With Wilma, the problem isn’t as big—one child versus ten patients—but it’s personal. Her problem is much more basic. She wants to protect a loved one while the doctor wants only to help patients she may see once a year or so. This is Wilma’s story. She will change the most, so she should be the protagonist.

That says nothing of the point of view character. We can still tell the story as it unfolds for Jennifer Stanton. The difference is that we won’t talk so much about the nine other patients, but we will focus our attention on the girl and her grandmother. Jennifer will observe what Wilma does and will report back to us in her own words. If what we want is for Jennifer to be the protagonist, we must change the story and raise the stakes for her. Make one of the patients Jennifer’s son and it becomes her story. We may be interested in Wilma’s struggle also, but Jennifer’s struggle is personal as she tries to save her son’s life.