Do I Even Know My Protagonist?

 

So we’re more than halfway into the National Novel Writing Month adventure, and though my progress has been much slower than I anticipated, I’m still chugging along at a speed I’m pretty happy with. I recently passed the 10,000 word mark, which most of the participants are WELL over, by now. I, however, have been trying as hard as I can to not beat myself up about it. I’ve been doing as much as I can whenever I can do it, and that’s definitely what matters most! Now if only I can lock myself away in a cozy café (like the one above) and tell the world to stop bothering me so I can reach this 50,000 word goal, that would be pretty great.

One thing I’ve been noticing as I’ve gotten deeper into writing this novel is…I don’t think I really know my main character as much as I thought I did. This isn’t a new phenomenon in my world of writing. I had a novel I started where the main character must have had like, ten mood swings, five personality changes, and was both terrified and apathetic at the same time. I mean, I knew who he was, and what he was supposed to go through. I can’t quite grasp why I felt like he needed to be a completely different person on every different page, but for some reason, that’s how it subconsciously (and, well, consciously) happened. 

I feel it happening again in this story, but not quite to the same degree. I keep making choices for Leo (the protagonist in my current novel) that make me have to stop, take a few moments, and think “is that something he would actually do?” It becomes difficult, because I desperately try to convince myself that the choice is within his personality. It’s hard because I start conflating what needs to happen for the story to progress with what my protagonist would do in the situations I put him in. So as the story progresses, I’m seeing that I could, yet again, have a character that goes through a few different personality changes that make absolutely no sense.

Despite this insecurity about my protagonist, I don’t think this is a rare problem. Despite all the planning you might do for the personalities of your characters, you could always get stumped by the situations that they end up in. It’s very possible that you could know your character inside and out, but once they come face-to-face with say, an abusive ex who gave them all kinds of seemingly irreversible trauma, it’s hard to gauge what they would truly do in that moment. Shoot, it’s hard to know what I’d even do if I came face-to-face with a guy who simply broke my heart; I can understand not knowing what a fictional character would do in a much more intense situation. 

Just like most things in life, we learn through experience. You can be as intensive as possible during the prep-work of writing a short story, novel, etc., but still get taken aback when you’re now putting your characters into uncharted territory. The thing is: that’s what first drafts are for. We’re not writing these to be published immediately after they’re created, and all that we wrote for these characters isn’t useless or a waste of time. It’s us taking the time to learn about them as we go, to see what works best for their personalities as we take them through the story. Sure, we may end up deleting that moment where the main character told off his ex boyfriend because we wanted him to have a “hero” moment to kick off the story, despite him starting off as a generally timid person, but that doesn’t make the writing we did for that scene completely useless. It was a necessary step to get a feel for whether or not it would actually work, and for us to work with it, molding it into something within the realm of the world we created.

We don’t have to know everything about the novel as we’re writing it; it’ll develop itself as we continue to create it. Though this will make the editing process pretty daunting, at least we go into it with a better sense of who are characters are, the environment they’re interacting with, and the kind of story you want your novel to tell.

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