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Article on Writing
The Endangered Protagonist
© Christina Hamlett

The book jacket premise was intriguing enough for me to part with $7 at the airport gift shop:

A beautiful woman, suffocated by the demands of wealth and public adoration, decides to take a break and go incognito.

(Oh, but that we should all be cursed with such problems... ;)

By page 40, unfortunately, both the author and her stunning heroine had lost my sympathy completely. Why? Because neither one ever let us forget that rescue was just a phone call away. Literally within minutes of a chipped nail, a flat tire, or a snatched purse, a bevy of security elite would be dispatched to whisk her back to that wretched life of embassy balls, stretch limos, and unlimited credit at Nordstrom.

How, exactly, are we supposed to root for such a protagonist whose fate is never in any real danger?

I'm reminded of my best friend's daughter-an otherwise intelligent young woman who has opted for the Bohemian lifestyle of a globe-trotting, militant vegetarian. For several years now, she and her dred-locked beau have called a village in rural Spain "home." The term "village," of course is used loosely; it's actually an assemblage of crude pueblos abandoned in the time of Franco and often raided by riot police who have neither the humor nor the tolerance for twentysomething squatters.

While I suppose there are some who might applaud her initiative to cast off materialism, disavow hygiene, and criticize US foreign policy, the fact that she's doing all of this with an American Express gold card, a Kaiser card, and a long distance calling card from ATT smacks somewhat of hypocrisy. Indeed, it's hard to muster much worry for someone-real or fictional-who snubs convention yet loudly insists on a safety net.

How then, as a writer, do you crank up the risk factor and keep readers turning the pages? Whatever the genre or central conflict in your story, it's essential to convey that your lead character is truly in a state of jeopardy-a condition which can only be conquered by his or her own strength of character.

Home is not an option

A few years ago, I purchased a time-travel romance in which the heroine discovers a hole through which she can enter the prior century. While her knowledge of an impending flood certainly makes her useful to the unwitting townfolk, the plot steadily lost ground every time she slipped back through the portal to replenish her supply of lingerie and lip gloss. In spite of the fact that this "time window" shrank with each successive use, its very existence diminished any concern that she, personally, was ever in peril.

Whether you are sending your characters across time, across the universe, or just across town for a seemingly innocent errand, do not cave to the temptation of rescuing them at the very first sign of trouble. Regardless of the scenario, your protagonist needs to deal with it on the enemy's turf and to step into the finale as a better person for the experience.

How do they know what they know?

In the recent action film, THE ROCK, Sean Connery plays a mastermind criminal who has been incarcerated for 30 years. When it becomes apparent that his keen expertise regarding Alcatraz deems him the only one who can save a group of hostages, he agrees to the FBI's terms and conditions---only to escape at the first chance he gets. Now while the "mastermind" designation offers a lot of latitude for clever behavior, it never addresses how someone in solitary confinement for 3 decades could adapt so easily to technology that didn't exist in his younger years of freedom.

A similar argument can be made for the pampered heroine-on-hiatus. For someone who had always enjoyed a lifestyle of servants, chauffeurs, and general insulation from the world's evils, she adjusts pretty rapidly to public transportation, laundromats, and eating in greasy spoons.

For your characters to be credibly in danger, you need to have established a sound basis for their knowledge-or lack thereof-and be consistent in its application to the crisis at hand.

Resources -- human and otherwise

If the first thing your strangers-in-a-strange-land do is immediately attach themselves to a "protector," the readers' apprehensions will subside every time this mega-persona is present. Romance novels, of course, are predicated on the rule that "two half-souls make a whole" and that the half with the pants also has the wits, biceps, and nuclear weapons to save virtually anything. For other genres, however, you need to keep your protagonist as independent-and vulnerable-as possible. Trust and betrayal are key components in weaving a suspenseful web of red herrings and misplaced loyalties.

The accessibility of too many resources-or the predictability of obvious good guys-can quickly become an annoying contrivance which only serves to lessen a reader's faith in the protagonist's own abilities. If you do feel compelled to pair him or her up with a partner, though, make it interesting: make it an unknowing liaison with the enemy.

The quest

The root of any conflict can be found in one of three themes: Escape, Revenge, or Reward. As long as readers perceive that a character's motivations make some kind of cohesive sense, they'll generally forgive the occasional speedbump and follow the plot all the way through. What doesn't work is a protagonist whose dreams lack direction and whose actions run contrary to personality. (i.e., Meek and Sheltered Heroine instantly reinvents herself into a Rebel-ette Without a Cause.)

Why do your characters do those things they do? "Just because" is not a valid and sustainable argument for a full-length story. There has to be much more. It also has to be believable within the context of the environment you have painstakingly created for them.

The ephiphany

By the time you reach THE END, it's generally valuable for your characters-and your readers-to have learned something. While there are obviously shelves-worth of books out there that fail to meet this requirement, yours doesn't have to be one of them.

Certainly the assorted tests your protagonist is forced to endure through X-number of chapters will have had some kind of impact on how he or she now views the world and vice versa. Will they be stronger? Kinder? More confident to deal effectively with whatever perils will be introduced in the sequel? One can only hope so, for allowing your protagonist to go through an entire novel without any perceptible evolution or maturity will make his/her personality pretty much indistinguishable from cardboard.

In the case of the pampered heroine, for instance, her sojourn to the Land of Trailer Parks not only gave her an affinity for the plight of the little people but inspired her to run for Congress as soon as she came home. Okay, so it's not a great epiphany, but at least it demonstrates that, as a result of her adventure, she emerged with a new persona.

I close with a quote from Thucydides (c.460-400 B.C.): "The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it."

May the heroes in your fiction strive for nothing less.

Copyright © Christina Hamlett

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