Love your protagonist

This month I attended two writers’ conferences—James River Writers and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Mid-Atlantic Regional—and felt like I’d shopped in a gourmet food store. I came home excited to cook.

Speakers laid out the usual conference fare—how writers must learn to accept failure/rejection, cultivate resilience/perseverance, find their own unique (authentic) voice, etc.—a smorgasbord of advice.

When Lin Oliver stepped up to the podium, she gave a talk called, “A Ten Point Guide to Launching and Sustaining a Children’s Book Career.” During Point Five, she dropped a crumb that made me sit up, made my mouth water. Five was about studying the craft, and Lin peppered it with spices like letting the child solve the story’s problem and writing “in scene” and beginning on the day that’s different. Delicious stuff, all of it.

Lin Oliver

But the morsel Lin dropped—the one that got me to lean forward, the one sparkling at me from the carpeted floor, the one I pinched up and set in my palm before anyone stepped on it—was this: love your main character.

Lin moved on to Point Six about practicing a lot (Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours business) while I sat there, rolling crumb Five around and around with a finger.

Love your protagonist. Duh. Of course. But did I? That manuscript I’d set aside—the one I’d spent three years writing, the one that still wasn’t working—did I love the main character in that story? Would I take that boy to lunch? Fix him his favorite dish? Share a spoon with him? Extend my plate for a second helping? Or did he leave a bad taste in my mouth? And can I possibly find another food metaphor to add to this blog post?

I rushed home to check on the pot that had been simmering for months. Yeah, the old pot on a back burner metaphor—you know it. A skin had formed on the surface, but when I punctured it and stirred, ooohhh—I could smell the way the flavors had melded. I watched the steam escape. Now I just need to adjust this flame…

Time to give this baby some love.

6 responses to “Love your protagonist

  1. I totally agree about the need to love your protagonist. You’d think that would be obvious. But I’ve heard some authors talk about hating some of their characters, particularly the villains. But we need to love all of them.

  2. Yes—obvious! And yet, it hit me that I didn’t love my boy, my protagonist. He kind-of irritated me. I don’t think I’ve dug deeply enough into him to find the heart beneath his shell.

    It’s great when serendipity happens—when a passing comment seems to speak exactly to the place where I’m stuck. I had moved on from that manuscript, leaving that boy behind (in the simmering pot), and written a whole other novel, but all along the way, I’ve sensed him there. I haven’t forgotten him. I think I’m ready to dine with him again. I hope so.

  3. Ha, you did great with the food metaphor. I was watching to see how long and far you’d go. Crumb on the rug…indeed.

    My first ms. has been languishing in the drawer. The main character wasn’t properly fed, he’s a flaccid inedible pancake.

    After the current ms. and one other, I hope to give #1 a proper meal. THANKS! Really liked this blog.

  4. Hahaha, that’s great, Lenore! Yes — go back and give #1 a proper meal. High fiber, lots of veggies. See if a healthy diet revives him. Hahaha.

  5. I’ve never been able to finish a novel without loving my protagonist. It’s just too much time to spend with someone if I’m not feeling the passion for them. My problem is conveying that feeling so other people love them as much as I do.

  6. And that’s the key, isn’t it, Lyn? Getting others to love our characters as much as we do. Of course, it has to start with us loving them, and then how do we communicate that? One of the essays I wrote while at VCFA was on developing sympathy for the protagonist — on how writers do that. I need to find that essay and re-read it. Ha!

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