I am trying a few ideas out. Basically, I need to find a new protagonist to write, one who will fascinate and absorb me for 100,000 words. He or she then stands a reasonable chance of absorbing the reader. My first novel’s protagonist, Evelyn, and her son Brendan were protagonists for whom I felt empathy: I wanted them to find the life they wanted. I gave them a problem each, then I tried as their writer to help them solve it over a period of challenges and conflicts in which they learned about themselves. And, basically, I liked them.
A reader’s empathy for a character is important at times; at other times, it isn’t. When writing roving third person protagonists, it is easy to expose a character’s motivation, good or bad. What is important, I guess, is not that the reader likes the protagonist but that the reader is interested in them, their story and what happens next.
I have just read a couple of popular novels as an exercise in checking out how I, as a reader, respond to protagonists’ characters, how they are revealed by the writer, and how their dilemmas are resolved.I wanted to to investigate why readers found both books so fulfilling.
Firstly I read ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. It’s a current best seller and a successful film. It is a suspense/mystery novel which explores the psychology and dynamics of Nick and Amy’s marriage through roving first person narratives, and Amy is an unreliable narrator. The characters are strikingly different, well developed and there are some clever plot twists. Amy is, apparently, the girl ‘every man wants and every woman wants to be’. Nick is handsome and desirable.
In fact, Nick is a shallow oaf and Amy is a sociopath. They have interesting, complex and unpleasant personalities: Amy is out to avenge all wronged women while dismissing or using as many people as possible. Nick and Amy appear the perfect couple and then Flynn cleverly drip feeds the reader information to show that they are both flawed and terrible. I disliked them both and found it very hard to care about what happened to them. It wasn’t just because I didn’t like either of them. They bored me and, often, I just didn’t believe in them.The novel was clever and crammed with striking devices: often Amy’s chapter would begin with the words which ended Nick’s, to show how similar and intertwined they were. But, despite being able to appreciate the writing, I didn’t enjoy the book.
I read another ‘girl’-themed book: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins. Another psychological thriller; again, roving first person protagonists; again, flawed characters; again, a best-seller and a film. And again, I didn’t initially warm to Rachel and Anna and Megan, but it didn’t matter at all this time. I found that I could invest in their characters’ growth and believe in their lives. I accepted their back stories and I understood what had led to their current situations.The twists and turns of the story were good, even though I kind of suspected what would happen at the end.The characters were affable, credible, troubled and there was ongoing exposition and denouement, which kept the book lively and the characters and storyline were always developing. Early animosities and relationships between the characters change and suspense is high. Hawkins uses her characters’ narrative to create complex, flawed individuals who appear to be going through a rough patch; they have a past and are capable of change, desperation, even heroism.
Red herrings and clues are well signalled. We want Scott and Rachel to be innocent. I suspected Tom the minute he used the same lines on Anna as he did on Rachel.
Both ‘Girl..’ books are not the sort of genre I usually read; neither of them create the depth of characters you might find in a Brontë, a Winterson, a Mitchell, an Amis or a Donoghue, although perhaps the characters are more vivid and absorbing than – say – Emma Healey’s ‘Elizabeth is Missing,’ which tugs at different heartstrings. But that’s not really the point. I wanted to discover why one protagonist worked for me and the other didn’t, and the key to why the characters worked for other audiences.
I think perhaps readers enjoy seeing the pretence of ‘perfection’ of the main protagonists of ‘Gone Girl’ exposed as the sham it is and then their relationship dissolves, leaving two nasty characters whose punishment is to remain bound to each other? Isn’t the strength of the novel the unreliable narrator being finally unmasked and then the truth of their relationship becomes increasingly more palatable to a reader when Nick and Amy get what they deserve? And Rachel Watson, the flawed girl on the train, finally becomes a valid character through her determination and her capacity to change. We admire her honesty, and her previous lonely obsessive alcoholic weaknesses are absolved as she triumphs against a character whom we knew was too oleaginous to be true.
So, back to my new novel and the protagonists I have in the melting pot. My previous protagonist, Evelyn, is funny, mischievous and resilient. Her story is an adventure, and she is pursued by the hapless Brendan, who has much to learn about what he wants from life. My next protagonist will not be such an easy or straightforward one to write.
I have several ideas for my new, unreliable or perhaps not so likeable narrator. One is Zach, an angry young man who relates the story of his life from an unusual setting and an unusual perspective. The story will take the reader through many of the events of his life and there will be unexpected twists and turns, surprising action and strange relationships explored until the climactic ending.
My second idea is set in the 1980s. I am interested in the sexual politics emerging now from accounts of that era. My protagonists are two women with totally different life styles, and different histories and cultures, who both begin the novel with huge dilemmas in their lives before I bring them together and enable them to seek resolutions or change.
My third idea is about a man and a woman, identical twins: again, they will be roving first person protagonists. Both of them appear dangerous and unpredictable characters but the reader will not always know which of them, if either, is culpable until a late and unexpected exposition.
I am currently interested in writing the unreliable narrator. I am keen to create a character who is complex and flawed, one whom the reader may not like but who will be fascinating and will enable new details, action or change to emerge from the fact that information is held back until later.
As a writer, I continue to research and learn, and from such growth my characters and writing may improve and develop. Reading the ‘Girl’ books was not the deepest experience I have had with a novel, and neither of them gripped me sufficiently that I couldn’t put them down, as was the case with – say – Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ or Evaristo’s ‘Mr. Loverman.’
But both books challenged me as a reader. Not intellectually, but in terms of suspension of disbelief despite their smooth and polished style, and they took me on a journey and made me think. They enabled me to ask myself questions about the craft of writing and about the quality of the reader’s experience.Both novels pointed out to me that I am not necessarily right in my subjective judgement of the storyline, either; both writers have been best sellers, they have an audience who invested in their characters and found them absorbing and pleasurable. The unexpected plot twists and the smart narrative style and the ongoing suspense in both novels create a popular genre which sells. Both books are well written, in a style which readers love for the way the narrative exposes and develops aspects of the characters and plot. And both novels have visual qualities; they light up readers’ imaginations. They have become successful films.
Back to the fact that I spent time reading a book I didn’t like and another book I thought was okay: such time is never wasted. Both books are good reads and highly successful, which means that as a writer, I need to analyse what works and why and how.Research which prompts thinking which prompts learning, which prompts better writing, perhaps, is always time well spent.
My new protagonists do not need to be likeable, but they do need to be fascinating, and perhaps with a surprising background, a secret or an unexpected story to be drip fed…
Back to the computer, energised and ready to write.