Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2010

How to Write a Sympathetic Protagonist

A sympathetic protagonist is a key element in writing the first chapter of your novel. This is one of the reasons that a prologue is a tricky thing to pull off well. You have only so many pages to get your reader (or agent or editor) invested fully in the novel. No one has to finish the novel. As the writer, you want to make them need to finish the novel. You want them to carry it with them while they are making dinner, to let the phone ring instead of answering it, to go on a walk so they can get away from the kids and finish your book. You want your readers to talk about your book to others, to talk about it in such a way that other people discover they need to read it also, if only to stop being bugged about it by that one friend who is obsessed with your book.

As the writer, of course, you are focused on writing a whole novel, making the plot work from beginning to end, letting all of the events unfold in the proper order. But once you have done that, go back to the first chapter. And make sure that it introduces a character that your readers will go anywhere to read about. Some of the characters I've read who are like that for me are Miles Vorkosigan, Ender Wiggin, Harry Dresden, Eugenides, Fitz Farseer, Horatio Hornblower, Will Laurence, Paksenarrion. (I will write some other time on why it is that more male characters tend to be series characters than females.)

The first chapter is not to introduce your world to your reader. The more you pump in as backstory, the more likely you are to lose your readers. I don't care how interesting your magic system is or how cool your political world is. Save that for chapter two. Chapter one is for showing your character off, making the reader care about him. The main conflict of the book can be introduced if you are absolutely brilliant and can figure out a way to do it slowly. But otherwise, don't worry about that. Think of the first chapter as a short story that is only loosely related to the rest of your world. Your first chapter can be about a completely different conflict than the main one, about an utterly pedestrian conflict. It doesn't matter. What matters is that your character is sympathetic. Show him at his best and worst. Show a want and a fear. Do all the rest of your world building stuff in the next chapter. This is the camera's close up. This is the reader in an intimate one-on-one with the main character. This is us in a bar, hearing the story of the whole novel after we've all had a drink and we can't quite believe it all happened the way the newspapers are reporting it. What would he say to make us believe?

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Here are a few choices of kinds of main characters your readers will connect with:

1. Outsiders

This is enormously important to me. I want to read about people who feel like they are not part of the regular world. Obviously, this is because I feel like I am not part of the regular world. People hiding or disguising themselves work as part of this. Or simply people watching the inner world from outside, wishing they could get in. A first chapter could give the main character a chance to get in and then they see the price of it, and refuse -- if the price is hurting someone else, or giving up their friends, for example.

2. Doers

I often find myself writing whiny characters myself, even though I hate whiny characters that other writers write. Is this because I am whiny and aware of it, and hate it in myself? Or simply because whiny characters talk more and do less? I want characters who do something. It doesn't even have to be unselfish, though that can help. I want characters who know what they want and go after it, even if they think that it will be unacceptable socially to have it. A first chapter is especially effective if they are going after something they want and then fail. It sets up the rest of the novel nicely.

3. Book readers/Thinkers

This can be used in an off-hand way that makes me revolt, but in general, I like characters who are smart and who read. Go figure. I'm a big reader. I think about Belle in the Disney movie version of Beauty and the Beast. She's a reader and we like her immediately. We like that she is dreamy and that she sees past the veneer of Gaston. We like that she sees possibilities, that she understands the magical. We also like that she is smart enough to outwit other people. Smart heroes, even ones who are physically weak, are interesting. The first chapter of Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold has Miles Vorkosigan in a situation where he tries to use his smarts to get out of a physical test. It doesn't work, but we love him for it.

4. "Good" people

I don't mean by this people who do what they are told to do. I mean people who do what is right when it is not easy. Often good people who think that they are bad, characters who are convinced they are condemned by the gods or by the social rules of their world and do what they are compelled to do to help others not because they think it is "right." I think of Valjean in Les Miserables. He is condemned for stealing bread, and then is forced to choose whether to do what is right socially or what he knows to be right in his heart. Beginning with a scene like that is very effective.

5. Vulnerable people

What is it they say, that every character has to have a deep want and also a deep fear for a book to work? The deep want is what they are working toward, but the deep fear is what they have to face for the climax to work properly. I don't want to make a formula here, but I can't connect with characters who are superheroes unless they have some Kryptonite. Sometimes I feel like the new set of urban fantasy women out there suffer a bit from this. They have flaws or weaknesses, but they feel like stupid weaknesses to me (ah, love!). I want them to suffer some really traumatic event. Of course, that is not usually going to be your first chapter (though I suppose it could be a prologue). If it has shaped who they are and what they will do in the first chapter, though, it will work. If they were raped and then are on a quest to help others who are raped, the stakes can seem very small. In a call center, just listening to someone. But your readers will be right there.

6. Rule Breakers

I think this works partly because it is a fantasy of many people to break stupid rules and get away with it. We wish we had the courage and we like to watch characters who do have that courage. Watching the new Star Trek movie with my kids (which I think in many ways is a deeply stupid movie), the set up of Kirk being a rule breaker who refuses to lose to the Kobiyashi Maru setup that Spock has written is actually brilliant. I don't know if Kirk would really be a good captain or not, but the movie is an argument that he would be. And it is a fun movie. We care about Kirk, even if we want to hate him. He seems to find all the situations in which the rules do have to be broken.

7. Picked on/Underdog

A first chapter that shows a character being picked on can be very effective. Especially if the reason they are being picked on is one that makes the reader cringe. Ender is a sympathetic protagonist from the moment we see him picked on by schoolyard bullies. You don't have to be writing a story about children being used as soldiers to use this tool effectively. But I would caution against making the bullies too one dimensional, especially if they are going to show up in the rest of the book.

8. Driven

A character who must accomplish a task for a specific reason is very sympathetic. In this case, a first chapter should set up why they are driven. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is set up from the beginning as a girl who loves her sister and will do anything to protect her. She goes hunting for her and then lets herself be taken to the games to save her sister. You could use this device in almost any setup to put the character in a situation where they can be used and manipulated. They can't get out because they have to get something done. But it doesn't have to be a character saving someone else. A character could be driven to save his family's honor or to prove himself no longer a coward. Lots of ways to work this.

9. Everyday

Readers connect to everyday characters sometimes in a way that they do not connect to unusual characters. Not every book uses this, but one that does it effectively is Twilight. Bella is a perfectly ordinary high schooler. Her parents are divorced. She hates school. She is new. She doesn't know other people. She isn't smart. She isn't powerful. She knows nothing about the magic of the vampires. She is the reader and if you can get your reader to feel like every event in the novel is happening to her, with a first person voice and an intense view into the emotions of the novel, it works. Another book that uses this technique is Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. It is a first person account of the gradual coming of the end of the world by a teenage girl. It feels very real, all the more so because there is nothing special about the character. She makes very simple choices with consequences, but they are the choices we readers might make, for good or ill.

10. Connected

There are plenty of loners who work as sympathetic characters, but I think connection can be even more useful to a writer. The connection can be to family, a lover, to a band of friends, even to an alien. But someone who cares for someone else makes the reader care. The higher the stakes to continue the connection, the more powerful it can be. There is a huge wealth of emotion in the Romeo-Juliet story that is being mined in YA literature currently. Forbidden love, the lovers against the world. Begin with that, and most readers will want to fight the evil conventions of the society keeping them apart. But you can do that same kind of romance with a family in the midst of a divorce or friends who are being threatened with a move. Start a first chapter with a connected character who fights for that connection and we love them.

There are plenty of other ways to set up a first chapter so that readers will sympathize with the main character of your novel. Abuse is a common one, orphans a bit of cliché now that we are post Dickens, neglect, misunderstood, and so on. I don't love all of the ones I've listed, but they all work. I think there are a lot of variants on these, as well. Good writing!

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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