Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Defaulting to the Protagonist

I've got this odd writing process. I write a chapter or scene, and start writing the next, but then realize that I need to add or deepen or change something in the earlier scene. So I got back and "layer in" whatever I've realized I need to do. So I never really have a first draft, as I'm making changes even as I write new material.

I'm doing that now, in fact. I've started what was supposed to be a short story but is looking to be a novella-- I'm in chapter three, and the conflict is just getting joined. When I wrote the first chapter, I had a minor character Amelia, the sister-in-law, and she is the "pivot" that brings the hero and heroine together. Well, she actually DID in the first version.  She writes a note to the hero telling him to meet her at an art gallery, and then tells the heroine to meet her there too, and she doesn't show but they encounter each other. Awwwww.... well. She certainly is a nice guardian angel, isn't she?

When I found myself inventing an elaborate motivation for her to do this ("she wants to bring Jordy back into the family from which he is estranged! And also to distract Felicity from possibly stealing back her former fiance, now Amelia's husband!"), I sensed that I was resting a whole lot of the plot action on the machinations of a minor character. Sure, she has motivation... but really. She isn't the protagonist. So her motivation shouldn't be more intense and dramatic and plausible than the main characters.

Every time I start a story, I learn this again. A story is only as strong as its protagonists. If they don't care enough, don't have enough motivation, to commit the actions that drive the plot, then they should be retired to the sidelines so someone more purposeful can take over the protagonist role.

So I went back to that opening scene, and squinted at it. How could I make Felicity re-encountering Jordy the result of the motivation of one of them? As soon as I posed the question, challenged myself to achieve this, I had the answer.  She wants to warn him about the sister-in-law's machinations. So she tracks him down to tell him what's going on.

There. I feel better now. A minor character is no longer the most important person in my plot. My hero and heroine are center stage, where they ought to be.

And, btw, by revising this scene to force Felicity to act, I also eliminated an embarrassing coincidence that would have truly annoyed the reader. ("Oh. Right. Out of all the churches in all the villages in all the kingdom, she walks into the one run by the sister-in-law's vicar brother. How convenient.") Defaulting to protagonist action and motivation rather than coincidence and minor character machinations, I think I strengthened the opening and more important, strengthened my characters.

Am I the only one who has to re-learn this every book???


Bren said...

What? You mean everyone doesn't write this way?

Cate said...

I used to do this CONSTANTLY - I was forever writing stories where the little side characters who popped in and out were more interesting to readers than the protagonists.

I probably still do, but I catch myself before I go off the deep end now and just let them have their own stories. :)

Wes said...

OK, I'll admit it. I'm a slow learner. I have only recently dicovered your method. It works. I'm doing it now after finishing what I thought was the final draft. Now I'm going thru the MS again trying to make the characters deeper, richer, more distinct, more vivid, more complex. The process is much different from polishing prose.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, if I don't do it immediately, I forget my brilliant fix!

Edittorrent said...

Cate, "Minor characters!If you behave and stay in your place, I might-- might-- just write a book starring you!"

Jenny Brown said...

If I go back and edit a scene I just wrote, I usually weaken it or lose my forward momentum.

But I'm such a loner myself that when I write, if anything, I need more, not fewer secondary characters since my natural tendency is to focus only on the hero and heroine and relegate everyone else to the sidelines, except when I really need something external to make life difficult for the love birds.

Jessica Silva said...

HMMM. now I need to mull over my plot a little bit more. MC has tons of motivation to do what she does, but it's also within the plans of other motivated minor characters. it's hard to decide whose motivation is stronger.