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No Protagonist Is An Island — 4 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting question, Jaye.

    The “loner” is a very popular (excessively used?) theme, especially for stories oriented toward youth and young adult readers. Alienation from parents and peers is a primary source of teen angst, so that is not likely to change.

    But why do we do it with fiction for adult readers? Probably because it’s easier than dealing with extra characters that don’t enter into the plot. When we do that, however, we lose the chance to develop the character through those relationships. Here’s a thought: look at the current cast in your story (especially the secondary characters) and consider which of them could just as easily be a relative. Even a cousin, because it gives the protag a chance to talk about family, and shows that she does, in fact, spring from human stock and doesn’t just appear on the planet fully formed. It might give some interesting and unexpected dimensions to the story. Unexpected is always good.

    Consider Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, who slips in and out of the storyline and figures into Sherlock’s very nature, not just his backstory. Dune is, in many ways, a story about families. In Lord of the Rings, nearly every character has familial relationships that enter into the story. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a story I really love that doesn’t speak to family relationships in some way.

    To answer the question you posed:
    In The farmer, I wrote Ardipat-Kaine as an orphan, but with lots of friends in his hometown. The parents of his best friend, Jannish, are like adoptive parents to him. I relegated most of that to back-story, however. I should probably bring more of it forward. I toyed with the idea of keeping his father alive, but it would throw too many kinks into the story. I should develop his relationship with Jannish and his parents more, though.

    In the novel Cherry, I refer to Sheridan’s parents but they are not present in the story, since he’s on an off-world military deployment. In the beginning, however, he’s still in comms range of Earth. He could do at least one VTC (Skype) with them. I was already toying with the idea of starting the story at the end of Sheridan’s pre-deployment leave on HOME-SAT. That would give me a chance to introduce more of the story universe, and develop his initial character set through interaction with his parents. The plot revolves around the friendships he builds on the ship, how terribly important they are to him, and the conflict that arises when his military duties risk his friendships.

    Thanks for the topic. It’s good thought-fodder.

  2. Thinking back over things I’ve written, I find I don’t much have loner protagonists. It’s not a conscious policy; I guess that’s just not the kind of story I find interesting and realistic. Friends and relatives bring complications, and complications are story opportunities.

    The thing I’m working on now, the 1st person narrator has adventures with his first cousin. He has a mischievous sister whose primary skills are shopping and getting people to give her presents, but who’s also supporting his goals. There’s a question whether he can get permission from his parents to go on a trip. His mom is apparently hiring detectives to follow his dad around. The cousin’s mom owes him a favor, and doesn’t get along with his mom. So the family is a little screwed up — not as dysfunctional as in my other WIP, where they go around murdering each other. But definitely part of the story either way.

    The people your protagonist is close to don’t just make the protagonist’s life more interesting — they also have relationships with each other that can help drive the plot. Too much of it can be a distraction, though. I might have to deep-six the grandma.

    I think there’s often a desire in middle grade/YA to get the parents and other adults out of the picture to give the character agency. That can often be convenient, but (a) you don’t have to get rid of their friends too, and (b) there are other ways to do that. In my case, I’ve set a story in the past, where people the age of my protagonist were supervised a lot less closely than they are today. Another way is that the parents need rescue — think A Wrinkle in Time; strong family relationships there. Or maybe they aren’t the kind of parents that you can share whatever’s going on with, and keeping the secret is part of the problem. Or else parents participate, but there’s something the protagonist can do that they can’t — as in my book String Theory, where the girl has the magic power, but her dad’s using his science skills to help her figure out how to use it.

  3. I hadn’t thought of it as protagonist enrichment, but my protagonist has deceased parents. Their deaths influence him and offer him motivation to succeed in his chosen career field. It’s an interesting question and a considertion for the future.

  4. Like they said. I wasn’t smart enough at the time I constructed the story to understand the mechanisms of crafting the other characters for the explicit purpose of delineating the protagonist’s character, I did deliberately connect most all of their adventures quite closely with her/their small group of friends. Then there is the “her/their” thing that I’m also slowly learning to take best advantage of. The protagonist has two distinct personalities, well aware of each other, conversant with each other, and with a common “I” buried somewhere underneath. In a coming re-draft I’m hoping to use this much more.

    As to parents/family–put up for adoption at about age 4 because your parents can’t tolerate you is a dim, but still present factor in their life. It tends to make them a little soft on kids, more so than they might otherwise be. Otherwise I haven’t inserted any family connections. That was a deliberate effort to make the friends more important–she/they have no one else to turn to.