Make Your Protagonist Accountable

Kathy Steffen
Kathy Steffen

In this post by author Kathy Steffen, she talks about “giving your characters accountability.” I thought that was an odd phrase, and my first reaction was, whaaat? What does she mean?

As I read through her post, I got it. For me, the click came when I phrased her words differently. I’d say it like this: make your protagonist accountable to someone or accountable for something.

Accountability engenders sympathy. Steffen is saying that if you want to ensure that your readers will care about your protagonist—will sympathize with her and commit to turning hundreds of pages to find out how she fares—one way to do it is to craft scenes depicting her as accountable. Make other characters depend on her. Connect the protagonist’s actions to the welfare of others.

In Brotherhood I’d succeeded in doing this, but not consciously. I’d like to say I had an instinct for it, but no. I had help. While I was an MFA student at VCFA, faculty mentor Kathi Appelt suggested that I restructure my manuscript. In an early draft, on about page 180 my protagonist made a promise to his mother and set out to fulfill the promise. In response to Appelt’s suggestion, I moved that scene to chapter one, and the move made all the difference. In hindsight I get that it accomplished exactly what Steffen is talking about.

These days, I’m in the revision stage on two very different novels, and after reading Steffen’s post, it’s occurred to me that in neither draft have I made the protagonist accountable to or for someone other than himself.

Ugh. My writing instincts aren’t strong. I don’t know about you, but for me, writing doesn’t come easily. I don’t craft stories intuitively, but instead slog along, learning techniques, playing with possibilities, and seeing what works. Thank goodness I find the process rewarding. I mean, really—I could do this scribbling, this shuffling around of words, this editing and revising 24/7. Sometimes I forget to eat.

In 2017 I’m going to approach my revisions differently. I’m now doing a lot of free-writing from each character’s point of view. I’m drafting scenes that show their hearts. I’m rethinking what they feel accountable to or for.

What about you? To whom or for what is your protagonist accountable?


2 thoughts on “Make Your Protagonist Accountable”

  1. Great post! I’m like you, Anne, in that none of this comes naturally. But sometimes, the changes that show accountability can be very small. For instance, in my first chapter of Gringolandia, set during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Daniel gets out of bed when soldiers break into his family’s apartment; when they find him and threaten his life, his mother reveals where his father is hiding. Initially, he got out of bed to find out what was going on. A beta reader wrote, “Why should we care about this character?” In two sentences, I changed the whole tone. In the published version, he gets out of bed to protect his mother from what he believes are robbers, his duty as the oldest son/man of the house knowing his father isn’t home. That man of the house role becomes a source of conflict later on, once his father is released from prison and rejoins the family in exile.

    I’m also in the revision stages of two novels. In one, the accountability is clear, as well as the conflict between my protagonist’s duty to his working-class family and what he wants for himself. In the other one, I need to bring it out more by having the protagonist state it in the form of a promise to her younger brother (which she will break in a very big way and have to pick up the pieces).

    I look forward to seeing you and talking about this more in February! Happy New Year!

  2. Good points, Lyn. I agree. Sometimes a change in tone is exactly what’s needed. Or sometimes the accountability factor is there, but it’s too subtle and we need to bring it out more. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing the right scene for the opening chapter. There are so many angles, so many possibilities — and once we manage to find the right path, the journey is uber-satisfying. Back to drafting new scenes…

    See you at AWP in February!

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