Monday Motivation: Your protagonist must remain the lead in his story
I think in the film and television business we talk more about agency than people do when discussing stories destined for print – although why this should be so I’m not sure.
By “agency” I am not, of course, referring to the rather more vexed question of how to find an agent to represent your work, but rather to the role your protagonist plays in your unfolding narrative.
I scanned the internet for a reasonable definition of “agency” and came across a website of Chuck Wendig’s, a novelist, screenplay writer and blogger. Here’s what he said:
“Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.”
What we learn about our character pretty early in our story is what she wants. It’s that hunger that drives the story forward. She seeks to satisfy her want (to save her baby, find a partner worthy of her, make a home for her family…) and in so doing comes up against her antagonist, whose dramatic function it is to frustrate her efforts at satisfying her hunger.
It seems obvious that your protagonist should take the initiative in your story and so push the story forward. But why should this be so?
I found the answer to this question in a lovely passage in the book that I’m currently immersed in. It’s called The Trespasser by an Irish writer called Tana French, and it’s absolutely compelling.
It tells the story of a disaffected Dublin detective assigned, with her partner, to investigate what appears to be a routine domestic killing. Of course, it turns out to be anything but. One of the antagonists she encounters over the course of the story is an older, smoother, infinitely condescending detective who offers to help her with her floundering investigation. She’s tempted to accept his office, until she realises what the consequences will be.
Her realisation constitutes a perfect explanation of why the protagonist of any story should never relinquish her hold on the reins.
“If someone rescues you, they own you,” says Antoinette, our detective. “Not because you owe them – you can sort that, with enough good favours or bottles of booze dressed up in ribbons. They own you because you’re not the lead in your story any more. You’re the poor struggling loser/helpless damsel/plucky sidekick who was saved from danger/dishonour/ humiliation by the brilliant brave compassionate hero/heroine, and they get to decide which, because you’re not the one running this story, not any more.”
And that’s the point. If the protagonist gives up the initiative, she becomes a subsidiary character in someone else’s story, and not the hero of her own. If you permit a knight in shining armour to gallop to her rescue, you have stymied her own efforts to save herself from the dragon.
So, however difficult it proves for her to keep control of the steering wheel, you have to resist the efforts of another, lesser character, to step in to save her from overturning. If she overturns, and ends up in traction in hospital, so be it.
Or if, as in 2012’s edgy neo-noir science fiction film, Looper, the hero has to turn the blunderbuss on himself to save the day, let him do so.
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