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ASK THE EDITOR Finding Your Hero

By Susan Malone

July 2001

One of the biggest areas of confusion I see in novels concerns the Protagonist, or hero of the story.  I'm going to use these terms interchangeable, because 99.9% of the time they are one and the same.  As we're not dealing with anomalies now (such as an anti-hero Protagonist), we'll just leave it at that, and deal with the norm.  

Writers, especially new ones, have a great deal of difficulty with their main characters. Often the hero is not readily identifiable, and many times this person is not well defined or fleshed out.  This has especially proven to be the case with thrillers of all sorts, and I can only make a few stabs as to why.  Most folks don't read these days, they watch TV.  Or, go to/rent movies.  Much of what appears on television and film is based on ensemble casts, where no one person takes the lead.  We are given a camera's-eye view, rather than the perceptions of a viewpoint character.

And there's part of the rub.  Books and films/television are very different media, and translate their stories (whether fiction or non) in very different ways.  What may have been a first-person account in book form, becomes one of multiple-character expression on film (think ANGELA'S ASHES, for example).   The same sentiments and feelings are evoked, just using different methods.

So, that's one possible reason that new writers are getting off-track regarding the main characters of their books.  Here we'll discuss the three major ingredients of this most-important person, because a Protagonist is exactly that–the person with whom the reader is going to travel the course of the novel.  That doesn't mean said Protagonist is on-stage all of the time, nor that we're always in his viewpoint.  What it does mean, however, is that he's on-stage most of the time, and we're usually in his viewpoint.  A good rule of thumb is to stay in the hero's head for about 75% of the book, even in multiple-viewpoint stories.  This leaves you another 25% to play with, using secondary characters, in order to fill in gaps and round out the plot.  Do know, however, that the fewer character viewpoints one has, the stronger the story.

By far what I see the most is that with such a hodgepodge of viewpoints, I can find no way to discern who that main character actually is.  And I should be able to pinpoint him or her in Chapter One.  Often I get books where we begin with one character, only to then jump to another, and then another, and then finally back to the first, so that after fifty pages I haven't a clue as to who gets to wear the hero moniker.  And by that time, your reader has been bounced around so much that she doesn't really care.  In other words, you've lost her.  And, any agent or editor who happens to peruse the story as well.

Now, you don't have to start the first page with your hero.  If the book begins with a Prologue, it can even be written in omniscient voice, rather than character viewpoint.  (Prologues are really their own beasts, and both can be and often are very different from the rest of the book.)  But unless you're writing some sort of avant guard fiction, I better get to meet said Protagonist very early in the first chapter.  This is a similar sort of truism as having the murder committed on page one of a mystery.  

What it boils down to is that you want your reader to attach to the main character right off the bat.  Something about this person needs to hook your audience; to cause folks to want to travel through the events and twists and heartaches and joys with the person at hand.  And again, to be able to identify that person clearly, up front, and with minimal difficulty.  

Often when we write from discovery, our characters change and grow and take off in ways we never imagined.  Often, the original main character actually fades some and a supporting one takes center stage. That's fine.  In the first draft.  And that's exactly what revisions are for–to go back and refashion the front of your book so that the whole is all of one piece.  So many writers want to leave it as is (again, the subject of another column) and go on to the next.  Which is also fine, if you want that novel to languish in the unpublished heap.  

So okay, we've set up our Protagonist well, fashioned a likable cuss to whom folks can relate, stayed with him throughout the book, and wrapped everything up nice and neat.  End of story, no?  No.  A Protagonist has two more vital elements (well, actually, he has a lot of important elements, but these are the most crucial ones).  First, he's got to instrumentally affect the outcome of the book.  I see a plethora of work where the hero is involved, but doesn't save the day, doesn't find the cure, doesn't cause the earth to move.  Such is not a hero.  Now, you can have a variety of different manifestations of this.  Think of hockey or basketball (sorry, all you non-sports fans), where often the hero isn't the one who drives in the puck r shoots the goal, but is the player who SENDS it to the one who scores the inning point(s).  I.e., it's the assist that proves the difference.  Your hero can function in such a way.  He doesn't have to act alone.  He must, however, act in a manner that affects the outcome such that had he not acted, the point would have died on the ice, the fireman wouldn't have been able to get to the burning building, the vital message wouldn't have reached the President, etc.  He must absolutely be the catalyst of the effect.

And finally, our hero is the one who grows and changes the most.  He is influenced by the story, and the story by him.  He comes out stronger, wiser, more giving, more caring, etc., even if he didn't "win" whatever was at stake.  Because what he "won" was of much deeper significance, and he can now take that back to his tribe, nation, state, family in order to effect a change in his world.  Think of Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY (yes, I'm using a film example, as most folks saw this).  He was the hero only for himself, saving only himself.  But really?  The film ends with his world wide open.  He's learned and been changed and we're left with the idea of unlimited possibilities–something in precious supply these days to say the least.   Merely the idea is enough to change us, just slightly.  So, the boon has been delivered and our hero is off on another quest.  

Because that's what heroes do–they quest.  And by the marvelous power of fiction, we get to quest along with them.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com