Getting to Know the Protagonist

I had my editor (Marjorie) read my short story I was all ready to post here. It’s not quite ready for prime time, sadly. So instead of a story, I thought I’d post about writing stories.

I’m working on a supernatural YA novel right now. It’s about a boy who finds himself caught up in a conspiracy of aliens (or what might be aliens) trying to gain a foothold in our world. He’s got a McGuffin* that they need and is on the run with a neighbor girl.

But I found myself having a problem with the main character. I really didn’t know him well enough, and feared that he was a cloudy mish-mash of myself and a childhood friend at best and a cloudy ball of cliches at worse. To make matters worse, I am reading a brilliant piece of literary fiction (see this post) which is all character, and my protagonist appears even more unrealized and lame next to Franzen’s characters.

I decided to write a prologue chapter to get to know my protagonist better. I knew he was having trouble at school in chapter one of my novel, so I wrote a story about the day it all came to a head for him, timed well before my novel begins. While I was writing it I was not thinking about how it would work in with my existing story or plot. I didn’t write it worrying about tone or foreshadowing or action. I just wrote a story about my protagonist and why his school was obsessed with frogs.

What came from it was strong enough to stand on its own, as it turns out, and was a great way to get to know my character a little better, so spend some time in his skin that didn’t hinge upon plot points or the narrative arc of the novel. Just a chapter, a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It was a great exercise in helping me get to know my character. I plan on writing another chapter-or short story-for some of my other characters as well. And they just might end up working themselves into the novel too.

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