Monday, December 22, 2014
The Most Interesting Man in the World
You all know who I’m talking about. Sharks have a week about him. Cuba imports cigars from him. When sailing around the world, he found a shortcut.
And he’s the star of your book.
Okay, the Dos Equis spokesman is not literally the protagonist of your novel. But the point is … your protagonist needs to be the most interesting man in the world. Or at least the most interesting person in your book.
Last week, in talking about back story, I noted that the current action of your novel needs to be about the most important events in your protagonist’s life – which is why some manuscripts that have the most important event occurring in the back story are so problematic. This is a similar rule – your protagonist needs to be the most interesting person in the story.
Many children and YA authors get this instinctively. It’s not “Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” YA novels are littered with narrators who discover that they are the “chosen ones” for some universe. This can get tiresome if YA is your forte – how many damned chosen ones can there be, anyway – but really, who wants to read about the chosen one’s best friend? “I stared at my phone, willing her to text me back, while I imagined her in the sky, flying around on eagles and trying to kill the last dragon.” Um, no.
And, yes, this is why I don’t write YA.
I’ve read a surprising number of unpublished and self-published manuscripts where the protagonist was not the most interesting person in the room. They stood off to the side, describing their lives in the corner as their sister, or best friend, or ex-lover became a witch, or a movie star, or queen.
The only writer I know who got away with this was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and my English teacher took pains to distinguish Nick Carraway as the narrator but Jay Gatsby was definitely the protagonist. You, dear friend, are not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and you are not writing “The Great Gatsby.” And neither am I. Besides, look how Fitzgerald’s life turned out. Do you want to be him? No.
Movies get this right. Movies always get this right. No one puts Baby in a corner. Luke Skywalker might have been whiny, but he was the chosen one. (Forget what Lucas said about Vader being the protagonist of the series. Lucas lost all credibility with “The Phantom Menace.”) Indiana Jones. Probably the only exception to this rule is the possessed demon child in a horror movie or the serial killer in a slasher flick – they may be the most interesting person in the story, but we are not rooting for them to succeed. Usually. And let’s face it, would “Silence of the Lambs” be as gripping if Clarice hadn’t had those screams in her back story?
If you’re writing a story like this now, please take a deep breath and stop. In some genres – detective fiction, maybe women’s fiction – there are other characters (and sometimes they are real sickos) who will be more complicated and compelling than your protagonist. If you’re working in such a genre, add dramatic back story and character quirks to make your protagonist as complicated as the villain she tracks. But if your protagonist is named Lisa and she’s flirting with a waiter while her sister learns to dance from the camp hunk, think again about who your protagonist should be.