The Driver's Seat

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-04-05 21:00:00 No comments

Among the rules I solemnly repeat back to others, and yet sometimes fail to follow myself, is a classic goof-up involving a story's protagonist: Make this person drive the story, not vice versa. A story about someone being dragged from place to place is not very good storytelling.

Exceptions to the rule abound, but they have good reason for being exceptions. Many novels of a more explicitly literary bent are about someone passive -- whether because they're in thrall to their own flaws of character (No Longer Human) or because they're being used to demonstrate the merciless impersonality of historical forces (Tun-Huang). And once you cover that kind of territory in a good, definitive way, it's hard for someone else to come along and one-up it.

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One specific case comes to mind. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland is about an almost entirely reactive protagonist, although I'd argue we value that story not because it's good storytelling, but because it has great historical significance and serves to this day as a source of allusion. It's glorious nonsense that works all the better if you're in on what Lewis Carroll was ribbing with it; if not, it's still glorious (and veddy British) nonsense. But again, it's not a good model for most other kinds of fiction.

Let me reword all this as two suggestions:

  1. Start with an active protagonist whenever possible.
  2. If you find that your protagonist is more reactive than active, then examine the mechanics of that and make it a driving force in the story itself. Make that the axis around which they revolve and which eventually impels them to become an active personality.

Some of this, I'm ashamed to admit, came from me looking over my next project's outlines and realizing the main character spent too much of the time being dragged by the wrist. It was far from the only problem with it, but it was one that seemed highly fundamental to why the book wasn't coming together. The steering wheel was off.

Tags: characters writing