In the past couple of years, as if in apology for his failure to pass the bar exam, Todd had become a surprisingly talented cook. Tonight he’d grilled salmon, and it was done to perfection, a vivid tic-tac-toe board of grill marks seared into the flesh of each moist, flaky fillet. He beamed as the compliments poured in.
“This is delicious,” said Sarah.
“You could start a restaurant,” said Richard. “House of Todd.”
“Your wine is terrific,” Todd replied.
“Speaking of wine…” Richard raised his glass. “Here’s to the chef, and to his lovely wife. Salud.”
There was a slightly awkward pause after the toast, a moment of collective floundering they masked with tentative, encouraging smiles. Kathy was about to fill the space by asking Richard if it might be possible for her to film some of his meetings with the Charlie Chopsticks executives. For too long, she’d put off planning a new project, on the assumption that Todd would pass the bar and find a good job, freeing her to take a break for a couple of years, spend a little more time with Aaron, maybe have another baby. But recently she’d come to accept the possibility that it might not happen, and it had occurred to her that it might be fun to do some kind of comic documentary, something lighthearted but socially engaged, a little hipper and edgier than her current project. The creation of a nationwide chain of Chinese restaurants by a bunch of clueless white guys seemed like just the sort of vehicle she was looking for, a way to shine an amusing light on what was actually a troubling phenomenon: the voracious march of American business, its insatiable need to devour everything in its path— other people’s history, their cuisine, their ethnic identities and cultural traditions— and then spit it back out as bland commodities for sale to middle America. But she needed to be diplomatic, to figure out a way not to tip her satirical hand, and while she was pondering her strategy, Richard shifted the conversation in an entirely different direction.
—Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Welcome to week one of the “Novel I Workshop: Creating Unforgettable Characters.” Thank you for joining us! This week, we will focus on the protagonist.
In the above film clip and the corresponding text from Tom Perrotta’s novel, Little Children, the viewer and reader are introduced to Todd, one of the protagonists. This work is an ensemble work and weaves multiple sub narratives throughout the overall novel arc. Todd has his own narrative. His wife, Kathy, has her own narrative. Sarah, his lover, and her husband, Richard, all have their own narratives, internal conflicts and arcs. There are several more characters who have their own narratives. Of course, any great novel or short story will include essential characters who have their own internal conflicts, but many narratives will point to one particular character as the obvious protagonist and focus character. In Little Children, one might call Todd the leading protagonist and Sarah the second protagonist with both Kathy and Richard their antagonists. Ask yourself how deeply you dig into each individual character? Do they each have their own internal conflicts and narrative arcs?
Before we explore this idea of protagonist further, let’s review some very wise words offered by Kurt Vonnegut on the art of creating character.
Be a Sadist
“Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” (Kurt Vonnegut on Writing)
When we write fictional narrative, especially in our first drafts, we are often so caught up into the world of it, the massive and changing aspects of this world and its relationships, that we cannot focus on one character at a time, not even our protagonists. This is a natural and necessary part of the first drafting phase. However, we must not stop there. We must, at some point in the revision process, focus on one character at a time so to better know the character. We all know this, but we don’t always do it to the level our characters deserve.
In this course we will not be focusing on the overall narrative arc of your book. We have other workshops with that focus. In this workshop, we don’t want a synopsis or an explanation of the book. We don’t want your paraphrased descriptions as to why your character is important. You are going to prove this in schematic mapping and narrative focus writing.
The best way to critically and objectively view our characters is to try and remove ourselves from them while also digging into them. One of the best ways to do this is through analysis, mapping, tracking and coding our character within the narrative. With the following craft techniques, we want your characters to speak only for themselves. If each of the three characters in this course focus—protagonist, antagonist and one supporting character—cannot hold interest on their own, without the support of the fuller setting and narrative behind them, then they are not working hard enough. In this course, we will use character specific and focused schematic and narrative studies to more fully discover your characters outside the immediate context of your novel.
The Golden Rule
If at anytime you feel you must explain your character to us as an introduction to your assignment submission, then your character’s narrative details are not working hard enough and/or they are not accessible enough on the page. Do not attempt to explain or describe your characters as introduction to your schematic and narrative assignment submissions. Do not attempt to explain or describe your overall book project as a way to help us understand your character. Just complete the assignments as given—this is a proven and successful method, promise—and give your characters all the information they need within the specific assignment parameters so that we will connect with them. In this course, our characters speak for themselves. You, the writer, are merely their bard. You must get out of their way.
NOTE: Some writers will initially have difficulty with this “getting out of the way” of their characters and letting their characters’ needs come first. Some writers will want the workshop instructor to provide more immediate, step by step “fixes” for their characters, manuscripts and craft in general, but the reality is that there is no quick fix or “answer” to great writing. It is hours, days, weeks, months, years in the chair and writing story after story then cutting the stories up and rewriting them again. You may find the schematic exercises to be difficult and/or uncomfortable. There is a primary reason why this happens. Writers are by nature right-brained thinkers, and so using the left brain/logical as a primary means toward exploration and research can be disconcerting, especially at the beginning. When you learn to employ both the right and left processes in rewriting and revision, great things will happen to your stories. Please work your way through these first steps, even if they are painful, and trust that this method is not only successful, it has time and again, turned skeptics of schematic processing into practitioners of schematic processing.
Flannery O’Connor is infamous for having made statements about not being able to teach good writing to other writers. She was right in one respect: a successful writer and teacher cannot teach great writing to other writers, but the successful writer and teacher can help support writers in teaching themselves the nooks and crannies of their own organic voices. When writers are willing to do the hard work of writing, rewriting, revision and schematic exploration and are willing to receive honest and pointed feedback then start the rewrite and revision process over again, writers can teach themselves to be excellent writers.
I will be reading and giving direct feedback on both schematic and narrative submissions. Be warned. I will be honest and pointed, but always with your characters’ best interests in minds, which also means I will always have the development of your craft and best interest of craft in mind as well. I will point out the successes as well as areas for further exploration.
Interviews & Background Checks
Say you had an important job for someone to do and you must hire someone new to do this important job. Would you hire just anyone? Would you grab some stranger off the street and give him or her a look over, identify hair color, eye color, a few gestures or habits then offer this person your important job?
No. You would not. You would do background checks, interviews, perhaps even tests and then after they’ve been on the job a few days, weeks, months… you would touch base and observe, identify whether this person is still a good fit or needs to go. If this person is a good fit, you’d not try to do his or her job. You would give this person the room he or she needs to shine. And you would support this person from your appropriate position.
Our characters are no different. You must interview them, hang out with them, observe them, analyze their performances, go to dinner with them, drink with them, share intimacies with them, ask the intimate questions to which they don’t want you to know the answers. And you must do it all again and again. The first few drafts of a story are merely first dates, initial interviews. When you think you know them, you do it again. If you find, after writing this character and interviewing this character and interviewing this character again, that the character is worthy of his or her position, then you let the character tell you how he or she wants to do the his or her job within the overall story. To ascertain what this job is, you must pull out of the overall manuscript a bit, hold it lightly in your mind, while you schematically dissect the details of the character.
On the Proper Relationship with Your Character
In literary fiction, there is no room for writers to have proper and polite relationships with their characters. Literary fiction is not nice. Literary writers are not nice. They are honest and detailed and never gratuitous. Sex and violence must be earned and must be perfect. Essential. You need to know your characters’ dirty secrets and how far they are willing to go to realize their goals.
Remember: In getting to know our characters, we aren’t looking to fill our expectations of what we think our characters must be, but rather, we are looking to discover our characters for what they are. And don’t be mislead. Just because you’ve given your characters birth, does not mean you know them. Your characters are hiding secrets and you must dig. Each decision you make about your character plants seeds for further secrets you have not yet discovered. As much as we think we drive this character development, at some point, your characters will be in the drivers’ seats and this is when you know your characters are moving from two-dimensional to three-dimensional.
In this lesson, we’ll focus on your protagonist and bringing your protagonist to a fully three-dimensional realization.
You may likely feel you’ve already investigated your character to ad nauseam. And hopefully you have. However, you have not yet explored the character with group feedback or enough feedback, which is why you are here. It’s time to make your protagonist earn his or her keep within your book. Consider this your protagonist’s coming out party. And we are the firing squad, the mentors and the cheerleaders. We are going to make your protagonist work harder than you ever thought he or she could!
What is a Protagonist?
As writers, we already know this definition, but we’ll review it quickly here for academic’s sake. The classic definition of a protagonist is the character who is the focus of the overall narrative and undergoes the most significant change. A literary protagonist is rarely ever considered to be morally “good.” Literary protagonists are complicated and will often challenge the reader’s concept of “good” and “bad.” Keep in mind that the best literary protagonists are usually also his or her own antagonists to some degree—i.e. person versus self internal conflict.
You might have more than one protagonist, such as in Tom Perrotta’s novel, Little Children. In the below film excerpt, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), navigate an uncomfortable dinner with their spouses. As you watch this scene, consider your own curiosity about these characters. It is this curiosity that drives the narrative and dramatic tension. We will be looking for opportunities of this within your character arcs.
Some Great Literary Characters
Do any of these characters look familiar? As you complete this week’s assignments, consider how some of these familiar characters would compare to your character’s attributes. Some of these characters are obvious protagonists. Some are not. Some are a mix of protagonist and antagonist, such as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Patrick Bateman falls into a special breed of character. He both embodies decorum and rails against it. He is a walking irony, a satire of modern decadence. This makes him a ripe character for study and we will focus on him in next week’s lesson.
- Humbert Humbert, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- Jean Val Jean and Fantine, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
- Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- Unnamed Narrator, “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson
- Mrs. Mallard, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
- Beloved, Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Patrick Bateman, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
- Bigger Thomas, Native Son by Richard Wright
- Orlando, Orlando by Virginia Woolf
- Huck Finn, Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
- Kilgore Trout, Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
- Dorian Gray, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
- Charles Marlow, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- Lily Bart, The House of Mirth by Edit Wharton
- Narrator, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- & so many more. Below, you’ll see a section where you can discuss your favorite protagonist.
Below are two assignments. One is a schematic exploration and the other is a narrative exploration. This is a system for character revision that I have developed and have used in my own revision processes. It includes many revision strategies I’ve been taught by other, more accomplished writers than myself, but with some twists and combinations of my own that I’ve found to be helpful. It includes a revised Freytag’s Pyramid and a character questionnaire that will help you track and analyze the character.
Suggested Reading: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.
By considering your character in both schematic and narrative forms, separate from the context of your novel, you will begin to flesh out your character’s individual motivations, details, strengths and needs. Much of what you discover about your character through this exercise might never be written on the pages of your novel, but all of it will add to the complexities of the character arc overall. Or, you may find that you will have developed an excellent additional scene or chapter for the longer work. You might have a new short story. Eventually, when your novel is picked up by a publishing house, these character studies can make excellent spin off stories to send to indie editors, who will be helpful in getting the word out on your book.
I cannot stress enough that the schematic character arc should never be the starting point for any character. Characters should birth from messy, narrative first drafts. Overly structured or outlined birthing of characters will too often truncate characters. Begin with messy first draft(s) then once you have the messy and beautiful creature in front of you—a novel or short story you plan to expand into novel—start analyzing the protagonist via the below system. You’ll see that this system can be practiced on your own, and perhaps you have done this already in some form. This workshop experience, however, will give you group feedback in a multi-tier approach or what I like to call the triad approach—protagonist, antagonist, main supporting character—in a progressive character interaction.
For this lesson, we will focus on the protagonist, probably the most developed character in your story to date, but I encourage you to use this pyramidal structure for each of your main characters as you revise your work over the next months/years. You will not only flesh out details, you will build visual profiles and create a character scrapbook. You will be amazed at how much clarity you will gain from this repeated character exercise. The magic of it lies in the isolation of the characters. As much as we want to believe we know our characters, until we’ve isolated a character and analyzed the character, our knowledge is blurry at best.
This is a patient process. Give your character arcs time to develop, revise and marinate. This single character focus is the heart of an excellent literary narrative.
*Don’t forget: Sometimes our settings and/or iconic items want to be treated as characters, too. Not always, but sometimes. Keep your eye open for this.
The below character arc exercise will force you to schematically study your character. You will recall details you’ve already written and you will consider details that maybe you’ve held lightly in your mind but not actually put to paper. In this exercise, you will be forced to actualize your character on and off the page so to isolate and deepen his or her character arc. Complete the following exercise by clicking on the NEXT button and completing each prompt. After you are done, the schematic will be emailed to you. Please add this emailed information at the end of your “Assignment 2: Narrative Exploration.”
Assignment 1: Schematics
Assignment 2: Narrative Exploration
Now that you have explored your character schematically and individually, aside from whatever intention the longer work may have had for the character, you are ready to flesh your character out in his or her own narrative. Write a 1000 word scene or flash fiction about your character. You might center this short short narrative on one of the schematic arc details—i.e. worst or best night. This story must not already be part of the written words in your longer work. This must be new, whether or not you’ve already been thinking on this event in your character’s history.
You might find that this character narrative will become part of the longer work, or you may find it will not. Either way, writing this character narrative is essential to knowing your character better in narrative form, and this will help you write your character with more feeling and interest in the longer work. 1000 words. This word count is firm. Please copy and paste your Schematic Arc at the end of this Narrative Exploration. Both Assignment 1 and 2 should be submitted by the following Sunday, below in the forums, as one MS Word document.
- Due Date: The following Sunday, 6 pm.
- Submit to below forum.
- Character Arc Schematic Submission: Please submit your character arc, along with your writing assignment, to the forums as one document
- Narrative Submission: 1000 words or less. (The schematic is separate and does not count in this word count). The narrative word count is firm. This is not only a practice in characterization but also in precision and brevity, the soul of good writing. If you are usually a “wordy” writer and haven’t had a lot of experience with short short forms or flash fiction, this exercise is going to do wonders for your overall craft. Promise. MS Word format, double-spaced, 12 point font, Times New Roman, 1 in margins, heading with name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number. You can use this template: Universal Manuscript Format. Follow first, second and third draft techniques below. After you’ve completed revision, please submit to the forums. Link below.
- First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising. Please submit the finished third draft to the forums. Link below.
- Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt them to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic literary excellence. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day before your next revision.
- Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve our pacing, tone, and cadence.
- Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. The fastest way to get ahold of me is by text to 301-514-2380.
In the comments section below, briefly introduce yourself and describe one of your favorite protagonists. Feel free to discuss and have fun with this. At some point in time, you might find it helpful to create a schematic arc and 1000 word narrative for your favorite protagonist for your own critical study and comparison’s to your own protagonists.