Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Beige Protagonist Syndrome

I mentioned last week that I had decide to cut my main character, Ink, from my Nanowrimo plans. In fact, my sister and I had a Delete-Your-Main-Character party, where we both got rid of our main characters, and upgraded a secondary character. This isn’t the first story I’ve found has benefited from this. Once you’ve got caught up in your exciting plot, your fascinating secondary characters and your shiny new setting, it’s easy to forget that your main character protagonist has to be exciting too. Instead, they end up beige, bland and overall dull. So, to save myself – and anyone else who finds themselves burdened by boring protagonists – I have compiled a list of question to indicate whether the main character suffers from beige protagonist syndrome.

Can your protagonist be described using the words ‘ordinary teenage girl’?
Of course, this doesn’t apply only to teenage girls. It also works for ‘ordinary middle-aged mother’ or ‘just your average office-worker’. If someone asks you what your main character is like, and this is your answer, warning lights should probably be flashing. If the most interesting thing you can think to say about your main character is their age, their gender, and their averageness, there’s probably something wrong.
I once figured this was okay, because of course my protagonist would be ordinary at the start of the novel, which is why it would be so much more exciting when she discovered the magical world. But I don’t think it works quite like that. A protagonist has to be interesting as a person before they become interesting as a vessel for the plot. Ordinary is basically shorthand for ‘I couldn’t be bothered thinking of a character’.

Would the plot change if you removed your protagonist?
If Harry Potter didn’t exist, Voldemort wouldn’t attack Hogwarts at the end of the school year. If Frodo didn’t exist, nobody would have volunteered to take the ring to Mordor, and then where would we be?
When reading the wonderful Snowflake Method (somehow this seems to come up in every post), Ingermason suggests “It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist's attempts to "fix things". That’s a bit of a simplistic, overly structured take on the whole affair, but the point stands that at least some of the plot should be caused by your protagonist. They shouldn’t just be along for the ride.

Do you find yourself struggling to explain why your protagonist is present during key moments in the story?
This relates do the previous question. If you do, they probably aren’t connected strongly enough to the plot. Similarly, if your protagonist is only there because they begged to come along (Mortal Instruments, I’m looking at you) and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense for everyone to just left them at home, you have a problem. Your protagonist shouldn’t need a reason to be in key scenes. Key scenes should come to them.

Do you love your secondary characters more than your protagonist?
This one isn’t linked to plot, but it’s still important to making sure your main character isn’t boring. If you think your secondary characters are more exciting, chances are your readers do too. You want to write more about your secondary characters, and your readers probably want to read more about them. So why is everyone being subjected to your beige protagonist?
Of course, this goes by degrees. It’s probably okay if your main character isn’t your favourite character. But it’s probably not okay if you cringe every time you have to write a long scene about them, and invent extravagant subplots just to give your secondary characters more screen time.

Is your character having too much fun?
While other characters are feeling angst ridden and stressed, is your character really just having an adventure? Chances are they’re not invested enough in the plot. Your main character should be up there in the list of people with the most to lose if the antagonist wins. They should be on the front line of the battle against your story’s evil, and if anyone has the right to be an angst monkey, it should be them. Make sure your character is heavily affected by the plot, not just a passive observer. Motivation is important.

When you come across a beige protagonist, there are several things you can do. Character development obviously helps.. I’ve posted some stuff on the topic here and here. When it comes to plot, the easiest way to fix things is to raise the stakes for them. Your protagonist has no reason to fight the antagonist? Have the antagonist threaten something that personally matters to them.

If your protagonist is too far gone for any of that to work, scrap them. Promote your favourite secondary character. You might be surprised at how well it works.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Pros of Planning

With Nanowrimo coming up in a mere 7 weeks, and having just entered the ‘100 for 100’ challenge over at Go Teen Writers , I have been thinking a lot about planning novels. I’m not usually a planner. I much prefer to come up with a premise, maybe a few scenes that I want to take place, and then start writing. Talking with my sister, I tried to justify my lack of planning with the following argument: 

If you plan a novel, you know that something exciting is coming up soon, and so you’re not too worried about every individual scene, so much as ‘slogging through the boring bits’ to get to the exciting plot point you know is around the corner. Whereas if you don’t plan, you never know what’s going to happen, so you have nothing to look forward to, and you’re forced to make every scene equally exciting.

Unsurprisingly, she shot my argument down like a fish in a barrel, pointing to several examples of novels which were clearly not planned, which had very dull middle sections. And she was right – when reading a novel, you can usually tell whether the author planned it before they wrote it, or whether they just say down and wrote, and tried to tighten it up afterwards. I struggle to get through the latter kind. Justine Larbestier’s How to Ditch Your Fairy was like this for me, as was Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels. Books like these have good premises, good characters, and even good plot points, but they wander. I often feel like the same events happen over and over again. As my sister pointed out: if you’re forced to make every scene equally exciting, that’s just the problem. No scene is more exciting than the rest. There’s no rising tension, there’s just a sense of plodding along through the same plot points, until you get to the end.

Against all the odds, I am beginning to see the merits of planning. I returned this week to the novel I began planning back in July using the Snowflake Method (thoughts on that over here), and I discovered something very useful – my main character, Ink, was boring.  Whereas the other characters had backgrounds that connected them to the conflict of the plot, and motivations rooted in complex backstories, Ink was described (and I cringe to write these words) as “a vaguely dissatisfied teenager” who wants to “change the world” although she “has the potential for a secure job”. It doesn’t sound like compelling reading.

So I cut her. Ink is banished to the dustbin of novel-writing forever, to be replaced with (hopefully) much more compelling characters. And you know how long it took me to cut her? Under a minute, since I realised this in the very early stages of planning. And how much time had I wasted on a boring character? Maybe an hour, at most. By comparison, several years ago I wrote some thirty thousand words about a girl named Katie who could be described with nothing more than the tags “ordinary teenager” and perhaps “flaming red hair with a temper to match”. When I realised she had no emotional connection to the other characters, and was perhaps most kindly described as “sociopathic”, I scrapped the story, because there wasn’t much I could do when all thirty thousand words were first-person, from her point of view. Had I realised my main character lacked pretty much everything except a name and a hair colour during the planning stage, I could have remedied it then.

The moral of this story is: planning isn’t all bad. The only thing I have ever written which has made it to second draft was written with no plan, but I think I have to accept that that might have been a once off. It looks like planning could save me a lot of time and a lot of effort, as well as producing better results. This revelation makes me sad, and won’t stop me from sitting down in front of a blank screen and writing down the first words that pop into my head, but it might make me stop to think before I write thirty thousand more of them.

Has anyone else had a revelation like this? Do you find planned-out novels are better than others?

(Also, the latest report on the Snowflake Method is that it can be quite a bit of fun, if you skip steps 5, 6, 7 and 9.)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

750 Words, and Other Such Things

After reading a blog post which raved about it, I decided to give 750 words a go. The premise of this website, in a nutshell, is that you sign up and write 750 words a day. It’s all very straightforward, really. It’s supposed to get you into the habit of writing every day, and to stave off writers’ block.

The site has a few useful (or perhaps ‘interesting’ may be a better word) features. Firstly, it times how long it takes you to write your words, and calculates your average speed. In terms of motivation to churn out words quickly (something that one always needs more of during Nano), this is definitely a plus. It also leads to mindless, punctuation-less, sometimes even word-less drabble. But maybe that’s just me. I have never been good at producing coherent work under time constraints, as anybody who has ever read my Nanowrimo works can attest. But generally, the ticking timer is nice motivational tool.

The second – and far more entertaining feature – is that for every entry you write, the site attempts to analyse your mood and compare it to the world average. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but it does fascinate me to know I am more upset that average, but less sad. My favourite part of writing on this site is when I finish and I get to see colourful little pie-graphs and charts of how I’m feeling. (Strangely, the seven options for emotions are affectionate, upset, self-expressive, self-important, happy, anxious and sad. I’m not sure how they chose these.) It’s also interesting – on the few occasions I’ve used the site for actual creative writing as opposed to brain-dumps – to see whether the mysterious bots picked up on the emotions I was trying to include.

Also, there are badges. As a general failure at consistent daily writing, my only badge is the turkey, which comes for writing three days in a row. It goes all the way up to the space bird – a weird kind of eagle in a helmet – which you get for writing 500 days in a row. Surprisingly, the site tells me 113 people have achieved this goal. Good on them. But yes, cute badges are definitely a good addition to the site. However, they aren’t enough to motivate me, because I can look at the cute pictures without actually earning the badges, and it isn’t really the kind of site where other people visit your profile and say, “My, what a lovely flamingo that is! You must have written 10 days in a row!”

Sadly, despite its perks, 750 words is rapidly losing its appeal. I’m quite happy to write 1667 words a day when it comes to Nanowrimo, and when I have something to work on, but at the moment I’m mostly editing and planning rather than just writing, so I don't have much reason to write 750 words a day. When I started, I was writing random rants of whatever popped into my head, but it quickly transpired that my head was very monotonous, and one post started to look a lot like the other. So alas, this site is not really for me right now. (And now I wonder why I wrote a whole blog post to tell you this.) Nonetheless, I definitely think it has the potential to be revived come the madness of November. 

While I’m on the topic of such sites, however, I do have a couple of others to mention:

Doctor Wicked’s Write Or Die – with the option for your words to start disappearing if you pause too long in your writing, you can’t really go past it for forcing you to continue.

Written? Kitten! – you set a goal, and every time you reach it, your screen flashes up a cute picture of a kitten. I find that negative enforcement works better than positive, but for those of you who are into cats…

I have also heard of One Page Per Day and My Tomatoes, although I haven’t tried either of them. Has anyone else? What are your thoughts on these types of ‘motivational’ writing sites?