Why Your Protagonist Should Never Be YOU – and Other Advice

cholla blossom crop

 The cholla have started to bloom and their intense pink is startling against the sere desert landscape. This plant was backlit by the setting sun and I wanted to capture the way it glowed in the light. I got about halfway there, I think.

So, I have a story to tell you all today with two take-home messages.

Recently at a conference, I was having drinks with a couple of friends, when an aspiring writer sat down with us. Though she and I knew each other glancingly, she was good friends with the other two gals. So, she proceeded to catch them up on her efforts towards publication. She reported that the agent she’d been going back and forth with and just rejected her latest submission. She was understandably upset and frustrated.

Lord knows, we’ve all been there.

She went on to say that one of the agent’s issues was that the heroine wasn’t likable. And the writer said, “but my heroine is me, so there’s nothing I can do about that.”

 Okay – some of you may be rolling your eyes at this point, but I had a lot of sympathy for her in this, because I’ve been there. In face, A LOT of us have been there. It’s surprisingly (to me) common for the protagonist of a writer’s first novel to be avatar of the writer herself. (I don’t really know if the guys do this, too, but I’ve heard it over and over from the women.) Worse, we all thought at the time that this was a great idea.

In other words, it’s a classic newbie mistake.

While it’s not horrible in itself to use yourself as a foundation for a protagonist – it’s an extension of “write what you know” – the crucial problem is exactly what’s going on here. When your heroine is YOU, then you don’t have perspective on how she appears on the page. If someone – especially and industry professional – says they’re concerned that your character is unsympathetic, you have to be able to look at the characterization and make the needed adjustments. The moment you decide that this character is you, then that advice becomes a personal insult. As if somehow YOU are unlikable.

And this is really not the case.

(Okay, maybe it is, but that’s beside the point.)

When you portray a character in a story, it’s impossible to say everything about that person. A human being is a complex assortment of characteristics. Even after many years, we don’t know everything about each other. Anyone who’s been in a 20+ year marriage/partnership can raise your hand now. When we write, we CHOOSE certain things to define our characters. A particular gesture. A haunting moment from their past. A certain quirk about public transportation. The skilled writer finds these key characteristics to create the person in the reader’s mind. Once the reader understands that person, they sympathize.

This is a primary goal for the writer. The reader has to be on board with the protagonist. Even with a  difficult or unreliable narrator – I’m thinking of Amazing Amy in Gone Girl, for example – the book works because we get her thought process. The first part of the book establishes our sympathy with her.

With ourselves as the protagonist, there are at least two problems with accurate characterization. First, very few, if any, of us can see ourselves objectively enough to create an accurate image. Second, we see ourselves from the inside-out, which doesn’t allow for a clear picture of the outside-in.

Maybe those are the same things.

Still, the first take-home message is: don’t make your heroine your avatar. Even if you start there – as most of us do – then change her up. You might have to give her characteristics that are the opposite of you, just to create that distance.

So, there we were, listening to this gal vent and I finally said I had a couple of pieces of advice for her, if she wanted them. She nodded, but became immediately distracted. She ended up not hearing my advice at all, which was fine. The first piece was what I’ve told you all here – and it’s entirely possible she wasn’t ready to hear it.

The second piece of advice concerned the agent she was wanting work with, which is something I’d never put in any form of writing. The only time I’d ever offer someone that kind of input is in a situation like that – among friends, with plausible deniability.

This is one reason to go to conferences or other real life events – because people will tell you things in person that they wouldn’t be caught dead committing to the public record.

Now, I know I’m not a Fancee Writer. I have no illusions there. I don’t have books on the big bestseller lists (yet!) and I’m low on the totem pole. However, I am ON the totem pole. I have a few years of experience as a published author in the industry. I know a lot of things I didn’t when I started out. So, that’s my second take-home message: if someone like me offers you advice, it’s worth listening to. You don’t have to take it. In fact, it’s better not to take any advice without proper scrutiny. But give it a listen. Especially that in-person, twixt-thee-and-me bar conversation. You’ll learn things there you’ll never learn anywhere else.

And here’s a bonus piece of advice, should you care to consider it, 😉 if you find me at a conference or other event, I will likely give you unvarnished, honest advice of the sort I’d never put online. I’m happy to do that because other writers did it for me. We’re all in this boat together.

Grab an oar and climb on board!

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Everybody Has One

I thought about posting snow pictures, but with an arctic storm covering 2/3 of the country, I figure we pretty much know what snow looks like by now. It’s a very chilly -6 in Santa Fe this morning. Very cold for us!

The other day on Twitter, an aspiring writer mentioned that she finally saw Avatar. She noted that the plot was weak, but the special effects were good.

This irritated me.

Avatar may be many things that one wouldn’t like in a movie. The 3-D thing gives a lot of people headaches. You could say the plot is a recapitulation of many other stories. You could be a biologist like me, and pick apart whether the whole “plug-into-each-other” neurophysiology is at all feasible.

Yeah – biologists can geek out, too.

But don’t go around saying the plot is weak. The plot of Avatar is classic. It runs like clockwork in the movie. It hits every emotional note perfectly and plays into a number of classic themes. Sure it feels cliché in places. You know the saying that things become cliché because they’re true? Exactly.

It’s really the perfect plot.

Now, I understand if a writer’s aspirations are not to write a story with a classic plot line. Stars above know I’m terrible at sticking to a classic plot line. But it would be foolish of me not to recognize a strong plot when I see one. That’s part of knowing my craft. If I were to pick apart the craft in writing the Avatar screenplay, I’d likely go for characterization. The characters are arguably not complex or well-rounded. They have simple, strong motivations. They are there to drive the plot, not to reveal the subtle nuances of human nature.

This reminds me of my brief stint teaching writing at a local community college. I should say straight out that I don’t think I’m a very good teacher. Patience has never been my forte. I like teaching writing workshops just fine, because everyone is there to learn. I’m really quite terrible at convincing someone to learn when they don’t want to.

Thus only one semester.

At any rate, I was given a syllabus and pre-determined reading list, which consisted mainly of Best American Short Stories from several years before. Now, we all recognize that the “best” is a matter of opinion. They’re stories culled by mainly academic literary magazines from thousands of submissions, then nominated from a year’s worth of issues by the editorial staff, whittled down by a group of newly graduated interns, usually from MFA programs, and finally chosen by a “celebrity” judge, Famous Writer Person. A lot of opinions in play there, with a very particular set of filters.

One of my students was terribly upset by one of the stories. No, I don’t remember which one offhand and I don’t think it matters. She pronounced the story garbage and said she could write something better. I pointed out that her strong emotional reaction indicated that the story had accomplished something powerful, even if she didn’t enjoy reading it. She insisted that, no, it made her angry because it was so badly written. I tried to explain how many people had assessed this story. It might be many things, but badly written was not one of them. She finished with “that’s my opinion and you have to respect that.”

Well, okay.

Sure, everyone gets to have an opinion. We live in the age of easily shared opinions. For better or worse. What I did not say to her was, while I recognized her take on this story, that I didn’t have to respect it. I didn’t particularly enjoy the story either, but it wasn’t valid to say it was garbage. An opinion based on nothing more than emotion is, well, just spewing.

I walked out of Avatar wishing I’d written that movie.

Not just because of the money, which would be lovely, but because of the reaction of the people around me. The movie had been out for months by the time I saw it and the theater was packed. We streamed out in a mob with people in tears, shouting, exclaiming, waving their hand. Rarely have I seen an audience so moved.

It’s easy to disdain the successes. To cry pandering, to make snarky comments about the sparkly vampires or silly blue people. More difficult is to see what they did and how. To recognize why they touch people instead of complaining that people shouldn’t have liked it.

That’s my opinion, anyway.


Yahoo! Avatars

No, not THAT one.

Though we did see the movie the other night and I get why everyone is raving. The story is stirring as any great fable should be. But the visual imagery is what gets you, sweeps you up and rolls you over. All night phosphorescent blue giants strode through my dreams and I find myself with a slight jones to see them again.

Pandora seduced us all.

I think I’m spoiling nothing here, but if you’re one who wants to know nothing about a movie before you see it, stop reading now. The reason why it’s called “Avatar” is because humans have their consciousness downloaded to an empty alien body, so they can move around on the alien planet and mingle with them as nearly the same creature.

I remember the first time I encountered this particular use of the word “avatar.” It was when Yahoo Instant Messenger first came on big. I use Yahoo IM extensively. My work team is scattered all over the country. We use Yahoo IM as a way of shouting over the cubicle wall, as it were. I also use it to communicate with friends family. From early on, Yahoo allowed you to design an “avatar,” an online representation of yourself, which you could make accurate or not, as you chose.

Okay, okay — for all you gamers out there. I know the usage came from that first. I just had no experience with it.

The thing is, “avatar” is a Sanskrit word that specifically refers to the descent of a deity to earth in an incarnate form. It’s from Hindu mythology, but really every mythology and religion has a form of this concept. Even Jesus Christ is an example of this: god made into man.

So, you can see why this makes me squirm a bit.

Sure, the analogy is a good one. A human from a spaceship descends into an alien body and uses it like a puppet. A gamer manipulates her online character, controls her destiny.

Godlike, indeed.

People make fun of the Mormons for this kind of thinking. That they, okay, the men, get a whole planet to be god of when they die. To populate with their wives and children. Sounds like a little much to some.

There’s an idea that when god “made man in his image” that this is a way of conveying that we all have a piece of divinity in us. Christ, Prana, what have you. This is what raises us up from the animal. That this is what we must strive to nuture and bring to full flower. Some think of it as trying to reach Enlightenment, Nirvana, to become one with god.

Of course, what no one can agree on is how to get there.

I’m thinking though, that taking on godlike qualities can get one in trouble. With great power comes great responsibility, and all that.

So even as I fantasize about walking a world like Pandora, with a beautiful blue Amazonian body, I can help thinking about the thoughtful sequel. In which we discover we’re not gods, after all.

Which is a good thing.