Attitude Adjustment: Preventing Old Protagonists from Dictating New Ones

The protagonist of my new book was starting to think like the protagonist of my last book. Here’s how I dealt with it:


The Protagonist
The Protagonist (Photo credit: mønsterdestrøyer)

There was an exercise I was given in one of my writing workshops where I had to write a description of the same view from the perspectives of three completely different characters. That one tiny exercise was invaluable for understanding that a character’s mood, history, and circumstance completely alters how he or she sees the world. A girl who’s scared of clowns is going to look at the carnival differently than the old man who met his late wife on the ferris wheel.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when you’re caught up in the writing, and my default is always to put myself in my protagonist’s place and think about my reactions to their situations. Which works when I’m writing Kate Kincaid, the 1st-person narrator of The Practical Orphan’s Guide to Surviving a Fairy Tale, because she, like me, is a skeptic, jaded beyond her years, and her book is all about the ‘why’ of magic. She was also the dominant voice in my head for almost ten years as I wrote and rewrote her story.

While I certainly have a lot in common with Liberty Leonov, the protagonist of my new novel, I didn’t want to rehash the same character traits. Unlike Kate, Liberty is a dreamer, an artist, and a believer. So when I struggled to move the supernatural part of the story along, I realized Liberty was reacting to things the way Kate (or I) would, and she was holding up the narrative because I’d written her wrong.

Even though I know who I want Liberty to be, it will probably be beneficial to draw her out, something I haven’t really done in years – by which I mean starting with the basics of a character profile and working from there. She hasn’t been with me as long as Kate, so I don’t know her as well. (The non-writers reading this are wondering why I’m talking about them like they’re people. The answer is: if you were a writer, you’d understand.)

The important lesson I took away from this, though, is that I can’t step into every book I write and use my hypothetical reactions to move my characters, not if I want them to be individuals. It’s easier, I think, when switching between male and female protagonists since I’m already outside my comfort zone when writing a male perspective. Mostly I think that when you’ve focused on one character’s viewpoint for so long, it’s just easy and comfortable to slip back into it.

The best thing to hope for when writing is that when you’re not serving your characters, they’ll let you know.

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