The Unquiet Mind of the Protagonist

I’ve just read something like 25 beginnings of stories, most of which were for a literary contest, but then there are a few books I’ve bought or have out on loan from my library, a couple of draft manuscripts for friends, and some online journals I try to keep up with on a regular basis. Twenty-five openings, designed to plunge the reader not just into the plot, but the whole world of the characters; 25 attempts to get me to identify with who those characters are, so much so that I won’t be able to do anything else in my life until I’ve consumed the whole tale.

tree bark with mt. st. helens in the backgroundMany of these 25 were great, balancing exposition, character introductions, the tone of the piece, and the basic conflict. Yet many  more missed the mark. And I began to notice that many of these poorer openings were doing the same thing wrong.

They had opened with such a big bang, moment of intense action that it shut down exposition. Think about a blockbuster or thriller movie for a moment. Even if it doesn’t start with the opening credits, we usually get a moment to take in the scene and orient ourselves. Ostensively we’re being transported from our ordinary lives to someplace extreme—a snowcapped mountain peak, a secret underwater cavern, Manhattan after the apocalypse, or so on. Because this place is new to us we need a little bit of time to adjust. Hitchcock’s Psycho starts us off on a bird’s eye view of a metropolitan area, before ducking in through a window where we meet our ill-fated protagonist. Released last week, Hanna starts us off in a frosty forest with humongous elk. Audiences—and readers—need a chance to acclimate.

We’re not just encountering what worldbuilding is presented for us, however, we’re also meeting one or more characters, and possibly the main character, the one we have to identify with somehow for the narrative to function. And protagonists need not be wonderful people. Plenty of people cheer for Dexter Morgan, and he’s a serial killer. But there has to be something in the protagonist that latches on to us for the duration of the ride.

When narratives begin at the moment of impact, as it were, we are, by definition, only watching a person respond to a crisis. That person is probably in shock, their regular hierarchy of priorities quickly rejiggered so that only survival is prominent. This is not the character in their normal environment, and while such an opening may give us some insight about what kinds of choices this person makes under duress, we have no baseline with which to compare their behavior.

Often there is a lot of internal combustion in the protagonist’s mind as they’re digging out from an avalanche, responding to an explosion 500 feet away from their location, or feeling the cooling hand of their dearly departed and significant family member. But we haven’t attached to them yet, so these scenes are likely devoid of intense emotion for the reader. When we don’t have a connection to the characters, the writing doesn’t feel as close to us, either.

explosion painting by Mark ChadwickWorse, many of the thoughts that cross through the protagonist-in-crisis’s mind can ring phony to a reader who hasn’t yet identified with the character. Readers are much more willing to overlook feelings after they’ve bought into the story. They may be much less forgiving about encountering a character’s frustration, anxiety, remorse, etc., when it’s all they know about that person.

Now then, to be clear I am not suggesting that every story needs to open with Beethoven playing in the background and a flock of sheep grazing quietly on a hillside. And I don’t offer that we all should rely on flashbacks for exposition, although of course that’s a good strategy some of the time. We need to consider a few things before we jump right down the gullet of the action:

  • How different is this world from the reader’s world? Will they have to learn a lot of new things to understand this new universe, or not? Am I in danger of confusing them if I don’t give them hints up front about what’s different?
  • What are the main three characteristics about the protagonist that I want to present in this story? Are any of them evident from the initial scene with the character?
  • Do I fully understand the back story that led up to this event and have I put in enough references for the characters’ histories to help readers grasp the whole personalities here?

Readers like big moments, and narratives revolve around some significant shift for the protagonist—watching the change occur is the main focus of most stories, after all. It becomes hard to gauge this shift if we haven’t seen the character before the catalyst for change, or if we don’t get that chance in the first 30 pages or couple of chapters. Don’t make readers jump too far ahead right at the beginning of the story.

Photo credit: MarkChadwickArt on Flickr
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Categories: ponderings

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5 Comments on “The Unquiet Mind of the Protagonist”

  1. April 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    This is enlightening! I often have a hard time with opening scenes in larger works. 😡 Too much action? Too little? It’s nice to hear these opinions.

    • evmaroon
      April 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

      I’m glad you found it helpful!

  2. April 22, 2011 at 6:11 am #

    Your bullet point questions would make a great test for any piece of fiction. Thanks for sharing!

    • evmaroon
      April 22, 2011 at 8:34 am #

      Thanks! I’m glad you got something out of it, Laura! I aim to come up with different posts than I see on a lot of other writing advice blogs.

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  1. Great Openings | Trans/plant/portation - May 11, 2011

    […] out of a coma, or holding the immediately deceased hand of a loved one as the start of a piece is likely to generate instant alienation for many readers. Only someone like Octavia Butler can write this kind of opening and make it […]

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