Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Perhaps, in addition to your thrilling and seamless plot, you also constructed a world so detailed, so complex and so marvellous that it would give Terry Pratchett and J.R.R Tolkien a run for their money; an antagonist whose diabolical scheme is sure to keep the reader on the edge of their seats; you’ve even managed to weave in a romantic subplot (which admittedly still seems a little half-baked, but it’s showing real potential)… and yet still, you just can’t seem to really ignite all that hard work into a half decent manuscript.
If any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your story is suffering from a chronic case of what I have dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome (PPS).
So I decided that my nation had lost a war and was forced to make hefty reparations to their enemies (among other things), resulting in the new government (instituted by the winners in the war) enforcing outrageous tax hikes on the working classes while the wealthy aristocracy continued to live in comfort. The people now had a reason to be angry and rebellion had begun. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself sympathising with my own bad guys. Vive la revolution was all I could think; and if I was rooting for the bad guys, I was quite sure any future readers I might have would be too…. Somehow, I had to sway the reader’s support to the favour of the protagonist.
Make sure your fictional world does not revolve around your protagonist. Take a leaf out of Newman’s book and force your character to adapt. That’s what will turn your character made of words into a person with substance – dare I say, a soul. Albert Einstein said “adversity introduces a man to himself”; but in fiction, adversity is what introduces the reader to the man.
In reality, there is no reason why writing across genders should be any more difficult than writing about a character from a different time, a different country or a different planet (besides, it is an essential skill for any serious story writer). Pragmatism, dear reader, is all that is needed; that and a little bit of patient and careful effort. Your opposite gender (whatever it may be) is nothing alien; and even if it were alien, that shouldn’t be able to stop you writing it will. Fiction is full of believable and compelling aliens with whom the reader can relate to and sympathise with; surely a human being of the opposite gender ought to be far easier to create.
Since we talked about creating the perfect bad guy last week, I thought it seemed only meet that we should have a think about the character who (some might say) is the most important in any story: the protagonist.
Traditionally, the protagonist is the ‘hero’ and the ‘good guy’. Indiana Jones, Miss Marple, Romeo, Luke Skywalker, Sherlock Holmes, Matilda, Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Frodo Baggins, The Doctor and James Bond are just some examples of famous protagonists who defeat the bad guy, save the day, get the girl (or boy!) and generally overcome whatever obstacles the author feels like putting between them and their ultimate goal.
There is an old and for the most part true adage among writers that a good writer will ‘show and not tell’. In other words, a good story ought not to be a technical report of events; rather, the reader should be made to mentally witness the events and understand for themselves what meaning there might be hidden behind them. In my opinion, there are very few authors who do this quite as well as Ernest Hemingway, and for the sake of this post I want to take a look at the way he accomplishes this using character dialogue in the short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’.