Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Theory of Protagonists

I occasionally teach a structure workshop to writers' groups, and one of the challenges in that workshops is presenting a working definition of "protagonist" that crosses genres. So I'm always on the lookout for new ideas on this point, and that's one of the reasons I posed the question about protagonists last week.

One of the more interesting theories I've encountered applies Jungian dream analysis principles to the novel. I'm no expert in Jung's theories, far from it! So please keep that in mind. This is my understanding of the theories, and I'm sharing it because I'm interested in hearing what all of you think about it.

Jung said that dreams were ego mirrors. That is, people and features in dreams didn't stand for what they actually were, but for some aspect of the dreamer's ego. Your third grade teacher is not actually your third grade teacher, but some representation of your interaction with authority. Your empty refrigerator is not actually your empty refrigerator, but a symbol of your feeling that some basic need is being left unmet. Your first apartment is not actually your first apartment, but a symbol of newfound independence. And so on. Not a difficult idea.

And in some measure, it makes sense to transfer this notion to the novel. All of the ideas on the page spring, in some way or another, from the writer's individual psyche. We may think we've modeled the character of the waitress on a girl we knew in high school, but in fact, what we've done is model the waitress on our interpretation, our understanding, our memory and sensory impressions filtered through our own unique consciousness, of that same girl. The character has more to do with how we interpret people in our world than with who those people actually are.

So the novel itself becomes a mirror of the writer's ego. Here's where it gets interesting. Does this affect our definition of protagonist?

I saw one scholar argue that it should. (I can't find the link -- it was on my old computer, and didn't transfer to the new one.) This person theorized that if the novel, like the dream, is the writer's attempt to heal the psyche, then the "protagonist" should be properly identified as the character that changes the most. (I guess we have to assume that healing creates change, or change creates healing.) Whether we're pointing to the focal character or some secondary character, transformation would be the hallmark of the protagonist.

What do we think of this? Does this theory have any practical application to the day-to-day task of writing a story? Does it help with revisions, writers block, anything? I'm inclined to think it doesn't, but maybe I'm missing something.



Anonymous said...

I think there are people who write in order to process something in their lives for whom this theory might well apply - writing a novel is often seen as a carthagic experience. However, I think this might well be 'the novel everybody has in them' - the one single thing people are driven to write - and after which, they stop writing.

The writers I am more familiar with are compulsive storytellers. They will take what if to extreme lengths, starting with characters whose mindsets are alien to them and continually attempting to ensure that these people act 'in character' and make their own, logical, and often alien-to-the-author decisions.

Personally I find the type of formalised literary writing what characters are archetypes rather than personalities boring and far too easily decoded; they're not the stories I wish to read or write.

As for the protagonist - it might well be the person for whom the most changes, but that's a bit of a circular definition: the stories of people whose lives stay the same are not interesting enough to write them. Story happens in the moment something changes.

Kathleen Oxley said...

I don't think it has a particularly practical application. I think most of that takes place at a subconscious level and therefore you're not actively aware of it, for the most part, as you're writing.

I think free flow writing can be helpful with writers block, and probably is also useful in healing the psyche. But, I think there's too much planning and effort when writing a novel or major story for it to have the same effect.

Edittorrent said...

Green Knight, yeah, I'm not a fan of archetypal characters, either. They're very limiting when applied correctly, and rarely are the applied correctly. Anyway, I think this particular Jungian theory has more to do with degrees of change than with the fact of change.

Kathleen, this is also the conclusion I'm reaching. But I thought maybe the writers would have a different take on it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the bit about the story representing the writer's subconscious. I don't think it could be otherwise. Our world view influences who we are and what we think. We do change IF we encounter new experiences. That's normal. It's called learning. So our characters had better change in some way, too, or else they wouldn't be human.

As for writing things to work out our own issues, I get that. I tend to write dark stories - shooting up the neighbors on their pig farm, a weird May/October young man/older woman encounter where the man is actually a psychopath, and a father who takes his daughter out to bury his illegitimate son who has just died at the father's hand. How weird is all that! None of it is true of course. But there must be something in my own psyche that has led to even dreaming such stuff up!

I'm a pantser, so it all just comes out, in shorts or novels. If I planned, I don't think I would get the buzz that I'm getting out of this 'head work'. But I certainly don't think about the psychology of it as I'm writing it. I discover it later. Sometimes even the names match and I'm not aware of it until the words are all out there to see.

Dave Shaw said...

Work something out? Not in my case, I don't think. I just like to escape now and then.

Anonymous said...

I believe some effecitve stories do not have a protag who changes. Sometimes the protag is the anchor around whom changes swirl. I'm thinking of series protags mostly, I guess. Kinsey Milhone. Stephanie Plum.

Anonymous said...

I think 'the protagonist is the character who changes most' is somewhat self-evident: it's often how we decide what makes a story. We *don't* write about the twenty years of happy marriage, we start a story the moment something changes (or briefly before, to show what is lost and must be defended/regained, see Bilbo's birthday party) and we stop when the events are over and pull out with 'they lived happily ever after' or words to that effect.

And we write about the character for whom an event is most important, who is in the middle of it, who has the highest stakes. At least, when we're looking for who would make the most interesting protagonist for a particular story.

On the other hand, if you're writing a different kind of story - a detective story, for instance - you might have a protagonist who barely changes at all. Sherlock Holmes is undeniably a protagonist - yet he learns very little and barely changes at all; here's merely the person who goes around and finds every clue and weaves everybody together and shapes their stories. For a mystery or a Gulliver's Travels type story designed to show off a very cool world, you often don't want a protagonist who changes a lot in response to the environment, you want the character to stand back and let events or worldbuilding shine.