Tag Archives: protagonist

Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 2

* SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen The Sure Thing *

Ah, a little inspiration in one’s life can go a long way in one’s writing…love, love, love that movie.

But to pick up where I left off Monday, here are the last two items covered during my one-on-one sessions at the Festival of Writing with agent Juliet Pickering and author Emma Darwin—

Opening Chapter:  Does your opening chapter compel further reading?

JP – “I don’t have a strong sense of [main character’s] age or experience. She seems fairly calm in this alien place – has she travelled a lot before? Surprised that no wariness when accepting drinks etc.”

ED – “Yes, to some extent. Want to know about the mysteries in the past, and how the prologue fits. Can’t say I care much yet, about [main character] because we haven’t had much insight into what makes her tick, what drives her, why she’s come to [this setting], etc.”

Me: Let me just preface with some context –  as you can probably tell, my first chapter starts out with my protagonist traveling in a foreign country. During our session, Juliet had seemed mildly interested in the chapter, but her lack of feel for the character prevented her wanting to read more. Emma, however, told me she definitely did want to read more, if for any reason because she was intrigued by my prologue in the voice of the historical thread’s main character and how it would come to relate to my modern thread. To repeat (and elaborate on) my last post, I have both a modern and historical narrative. The modern thread is the dominant one accounting for the bulk of the story, but the historical one pops up now and then to gradually reveal its influence on the former. Emma was engaged by the historical voice and the mystery of its cryptic words, but it was unfortunately my modern protagonist that fell flat for her as with Juliet.

I place a lot of the blame on the fact that this first chapter used to be my third one. I’d hacked out a duller, wordier opening and likely didn’t thoroughly think through what necessary elements of character were thrown right out with it. I’ve therefore been working to reincorporate that into the opening chapter; it isn’t all as simple as adding an age reference in there, but showing more characterization (and consistency in that characterization) through thoughts, dialogue, and actions. Bearing in mind the critique of my writing style from last time, I’ve also worked to simplify sentences and present it in a *hopefully* snappier, more engaging way that will make the reader more interested in my gal by virtue of better understanding her personality, background, and motivations.

Next Steps:  Recommendations for the way forward.

JP – “Perhaps add a little more emotion into [main character’s] thoughts/feelings?”

Me: Juliet’s primary recommendation related to the issue above – characterization needs to be strengthened from the get-go. Emma hadn’t written anything down for this, but, in person, she reemphasized to me the importance of my two narrative threads having an impact on each other. She liked my writing (was hooked by the first sentence of Chapter 1—score!)—and just warned against the over-writing that confuses what I’m trying to say.

One sigh of relief was Emma’s validation with the way I shift POV between the two threads – the indie publisher I referenced Monday had an issue with that, but Emma said it was perfectly fine. There is an abundance of stigmas against first-time writers and what we are and are not able to do expertly enough; not that I’m saying I’m handling this case in point “expertly,” but I have a list of reasons why I’m doing it the way that I am that I’m choosing to stand by, no matter what. I can see it making a difference if a newbie tries something just for the sake of doing it, to be stylistic and experimental, but when there’s actual purpose underlying the choices we make, that’s gotta be worth something (see “POV for Vendetta” for an instance of this). We’ll see.

So once again, I ask you, readers, what feedback have you received on your manuscript’s opening that you’ve found helpful? How did you address it? 

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Mad Me?

* * SPOILER ALERT * * – Ye be warned if you haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s Psycho.

YouTube embedding is being finicky...please click photo to access clip!

I was watching Mad Men last night and marveling over how much I continue to sympathize with the character of Don Draper.  Am I mad?  The guy has cheated on his wife for the first three seasons, even after she bears his third child, and still those dramatic shots of Don sitting in isolation as the camera gradually zooms out still pluck out a melancholy little banjo tune on a heartstring or two.

This brings to mind a post I recently read on Milo James Fowler’s In Media Res blog that discusses how the villains in books, TV, or film tend to fascinate us, to the point where we might find ourselves cheering for them.  When I read this, I immediately thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and how the director’s genius for creating suspense through cinematography and Anthony Perkins’s stutteringly shy Norman Bates always leaves me biting my fingernails each time Norman is close to getting caught.  The part directly following the infamous shower scene, for example, shows Norman pushing a car (with Marion’s  dead body inside) into a swamp.  As slowly as if the water was molasses, the car glub-glubs down until, suddenly, it just stops.  Norman swallows in anxiety, and after several looong seconds, the car continues to gurgle down into the swamp’s depths, now fully concealed.  There is something about the shot-reaction-shot sequence here that makes the viewer (I know it can’t just be me) tense on Norman’s behalf and want the car to keep sinking just as much as he does.  Why is that?!

Not that Don Draper exudes the villainy of a murderer with a curling black mustache and a damsel in distress bound in rope underfoot…but that’s precisely my point.  For me, if a villain is in the least bit complicated with a sense of vulnerability, I will sympathize.  The Don Draper character mesmerizes me because I can’t quite slide him into a specific slot; he is complicated by a darker past and an inner struggle between being a good person that does right by others and a psychopath that acts in complete disregard of them.  Norman Bates is a mentally unstable young man whose psychosis is likewise triggered by a difficult childhood; in his conversations with Marion before her death, we see the friendly, likable side of him that is tormented by the wicked personality of his mother that he’s invented in his mind.

It’s the classic struggle of the good versus evil within each of us, after all, and a great many fascinating stories have been written around this internal conflict, the most engaging of which (for me) tending to be when the protagonists and antagonists of the plot at times blur into each other.  (As you can see in the photos above, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of many films utilizing the imagery of duality—here, both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s faces are half in light and half in shadow—as who is the “hero” and who is the “villain” is called into question.) As it stands, Don is a flawed protagonist just as much as Norman is a well-intentioned antagonist.

So, in the end, what I think makes me want to pat someone like Don on the back and console him with a glass of Scotch along with a Lucky Strike cigarette is the fact that, while I cannot directly empathize with his choices/actions, I can sympathize (to small degree) with where he’s coming from.  Just something to ponder as we craft our own “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” in our stories, those complex characters that we willingly invite  to ride the carousel of our minds…


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