Saturday, December 29, 2007

Responses to Comments, First Person Protagonists

Continuing with the theme of your comments and questions~~~

Saralee, who has been lucky enough to take a few classes from my brilliant Blog Co-Queen, says,

Maybe I'm the odd person out here, but I worry far more about my story-telling ability than I do about my grammar and expression skills.Like, I have been told that if you want to use a first-person narrator, that person had better be fascinating. So how do you make that happen? Now I'm all worried that my protagonist is boring because she doesn't jump out of airplanes or perform heart transplants or train seeing-eye dogs or something. (I guess this is more a character question than a POV question).

First, please let me gently suggest that you need both storytelling ability and writing skills. Storytelling can take many forms. You’ve chosen the written word as your medium. If you had chosen, say, film, you would learn technical things about lighting and camera angles and whatever the heck a gaffer does. Those are the tools a filmmaker can use to tell a story, just as the fiction writer’s tools include things like grammar and usage and paragraphing and sentence structure.

But yes, storytelling skills are very important, and we do have plans to do posts on characters, plots, and all the other great narrative elements.

You raise an interesting point about protagonists. I think all protagonists should be interesting, regardless of point of view. But what is it that makes a character interesting? Jane Eyre (a first-person protagonist) didn’t jump out of airplanes or train seeing-eye dogs, and yet she’s an interesting protagonist. Same goes for Anne Elliott from Jane Austen’s Persuasion (third person objective narrator), who is for my money the most interesting of Austen’s heroines. They are both quiet, contemplative characters, but neither is dull.

And what makes Anne Elliott interesting? She’s obedient, long-suffering, mild and forgiving. She lives at home, and then she lives with her sister and takes a few walks, and then she lives in Bath and pays a few social calls. This is not high drama, and those traits are not the qualities we associate with skydiving activists, but in the context of the problems she must solve, these qualities make for a very interesting heroine.

So I guess my suggestion to you is this. Think about your protagonist in the context of your story. What is the source of her suffering? Anne Elliott suffered because she lost the opportunity to marry the man she loved, because her father squandered a fortune, and because her family placed excessive demands on her. What decisions must she make, and what do those choices say about her character? There’s a lovely scene where Anne has plans to meet an old friend, an impoverished widow in failing health. Anne’s father demands she cancel that appointment and attend a more prestigious affair, but Anne refuses. This is a turning point in the story because it shows Anne breaking away from her family, but more important, it shows her starting to follow to her own moral compass.

Is she jumping out of an airplane? No. But she is taking a risk in refusing her father’s demands, and this decision creates change. This is what makes her interesting: she is docile and obedient, but those very qualities are tested by the events of the story. She wants what she cannot have, so there’s a strong conflict in place. And that conflict tests her character.

And this is what makes a character interesting. Not what they do, but how they respond, how they are tested, how they prevail.

First person? Third person? Either way, same rules apply to make a character interesting.

There is a related problem peculiar to first person narratives -- that of pov claustrophobia -- but we'll save that topic for another day. And Alicia should probably be the one to address it because she is our pov authority. :)


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