Project 2015, Part 3: “Strong Protagonists” Remind Us How to Feel

There is a scene in Love Actually (2003) where Emma Thompson’s character turns to her husband and says, “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” The line stuck in my head–inevitably, because Love Actually has become the de rigueur Christmas movie in our house. Also, I think, was the provocative idea that art could teach a person how to feel.

Yet hasn’t every book lover had an experience something like this? You recognize a hard-to-explain, but powerful emotion in someone else’s writing, and say, Yes, that. That’s what I’ve felt, and I didn’t even realize it was a feeling at the time. Whether it strikes you while listening to Joni Mitchell or while you are reading Alice Munro, it feels like a shock, and then a melting: the writer has articulated something profoundly personal, even private, and done it so well that you surrender to the story, its characters, and its vision. It’s like the writer has created a glass slipper that magically fits your foot.

So, how do we take the measure of imaginary human beings, and get readers to sink so perfectly into their stories? What is a strong, sympathetic character, anyway?

Let’s get clear on terms. Sympathetic means we can relate to the character. Not that we approve of them; we’re not the Grand Inquisitor. Nor do we need to like them; we’re not planning a road trip together. We just need to access and recognize his or her distresses and desires.

strong protagonist doesn’t have to be a high-power attorney in Manhattan, a long-suffering single mother of four, or a frontiersman in Minnesota. Having social cachet or tough odds don’t equate to strength. Any of these character identities can be poorly written, flat, and inaccessible. “Strong” means that your protagonist exists as a full human being; that you’ve made us care about what they feel; and that you’ve done the work of capturing their emotions in a way that teaches us to pay better attention to our own feelings. So, whether you’re writing about the leader of the free world or a person stuck in an abusive marriage, that character can still be a strong protagonist.

TIP #1: Get us inside your protagonist’s skin.

Line-level techniques will help you create intimacy between reader and character. Example: One of the most common pitfalls I see as an editor is the overuse of facial expressions. If we’re in a character’s point of view, don’t describe facial expressions unless he or she is standing in front of a mirror and actively practicing expressions. It’s a pitfall, because it puts us outside, looking at the surface of a person. What we care about are the sensations of emotion. For instance, how would you FEEL, in your body, if you got a call from an agent offering representation? Or a letter from the IRS? Or a sheaf of drawings from your kid as he comes home from school? Chances are, you’re not aware of your face. Your heartbeat makes your voice quaver, or you’re lightheaded with worry, or your arms open up automatically to scoop up your son, and everything else melts away.

TIP #2: Decide what your protagonist wants, and why.

While you’re in there, in your character’s head and heart, ask yourself if you are completely clear about why s/he keeps moving forward toward a goal despite several failures. Good motivations are personal, emotional ones–not just some outside pressure from the plot. Having a bad guy hold a taser to your hero’s head is briefly motivating, but from a character standpoint, it’s not really compelling. When the taser goes away, what keeps your character from running home and hiding under the covers? Or when the flood waters rise, why doesn’t a main character climb straight to the roof and signal the rescue helicopters? Maybe because her grandson is stuck in the basement of the neighboring house; or maybe she’s a fugitive who will avoid the system at the expense of her life.

Good protagonists act, and often do so contrary to common sense. Like most people, they want something. But when things don’t work out the first time, that reason helps them pick themselves up off the pavement; and then when they fail again, that reason gives them no choice but to go all the way to Hell and back. Whatever this reason is, it must be compelling and personal. In some way, self-concept or sanity is at stake. They refuse to give up, not just because a Bad Event will happen in the plot if they fail, but because something in their soul will unravel if they don’t keep going.

It’s the difference between wanting the police to arrest your brother’s killer, and wanting justice.

It’s the difference between applying for a job, and wanting the dignity of work.

It’s the difference between mere plot and real drama.

A case in point: Tana French’s In the Woods (2008) is not a novel you read for the warm-and-fuzzies. It’s a hardboiled police procedural built on a concrete base of psychological suspense. And yet the reason I found myself sneaking five-minute breaks to read it during the workday was because I’d fallen in love with the characters. Underneath the crime story, what French puts at stake is a relationship between partner cops that reminded me of everything good and bad that I’d ever felt about the friendships in my life. She’s a good storyteller, a lyrical writer, and polished in her craft–all strengths that I hope to cover in this Project 2015 series–but none of these would have mattered without her mastery of writing strong protagonists. Her characters are people with secrets, wounds, ambitions, and senses of humor.

You know, just like you. And all of us. When you gain this glass-slipper clarity about your protagonist, that is when you can begin to show how his or her emotions spring from the story’s real drama.

TIP #3: Ask the questions that will develop–and thus strengthen–your main character.

My friend and college writing mentor, Jane McCafferty, told me that when you’re stuck with a character, “Give them something more”: in other words, something to defend, fight for, hide, deal with, draw identity from . . . anything rooted in drama. With that in mind, here are a few questions that have helped clients open up their characters:

  1. What secrets do they keep?
  2. What responsibility hampers how they spend their time?
  3. Are they ambitious?
  4. What favor would they do for a friend but not for themselves?
  5. What family, friend, and/or work networks shape their behavior?
  6. Who do they blame? Trust more than they should?

These are just a few questions. If you’ve had a breakthrough with one of your own characters, I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Twitter (@threepenny)!

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