Mutants: You and Your Protagonist

English: Mixer from an AM 130

Coming up: one seriously messed up plot twist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not one of those people who believes we should only write what we know*, if only because that’s so goddamned limiting. But there is a time when we should take stock of ourselves and use something we find there: the creation of our protagonist.

This isn’t a call for the continued existence of Gary Stu/Mary Sue and all their uninteresting brethren. No one wants to read about a character that is your ideal, all right? No one. Not even your mom.

But when it comes to your protagonist, the one who will carry the story through its long and winding pages, there should be a little bit of you in them. Not much, mind. Maybe a heart valve or a fingernail. Just something, down at the core, that feels like you. A stem cell.

Why? Because you need to know that character intimately, deeply, and the only way to do that is to have an in. A way for you to burrow into their brain like the parasites from that back-alley sushi. Then you can sit in their control box and say, “I know that you will do this.”

Now, they shouldn’t be too much like you. One, you’re straying into Mary Sue territory there. Two, no one wants to read about writers except maybe other writers and then you enter a recursive feedback loop which may well destroy us all. And, three, the most important of all, you are going to fuck this character up. Physically, emotionally, mentally. And having the character be too much like you will make you hesitate. Or might make the solutions too easy. And we can’t have that, can we?

So, where’s the line? How much of yourself do you put into this darling little protagonist that you’re about to toss into the shark tank that is Story? Here’s my thought: they should be enough like you that you can understand them, but different enough that you’d be willing to put their hand in a meat grinder if it made the story work.

Take a tiny petri-dish sample of you, and grow it into some horrifying mutant version, with superpowers or heavy weaponry or freeway on-ramps for arms, until it doesn’t resemble you at all. But remember that stem cell, that core, that back door into their head. It might be a way of dealing with anger, or a favourite hobby, or a disturbing family member. And use that back door to explore all their other parts until you understand them.

And then get the meat grinder ready.

*I prefer ‘write what you have adequately researched’ or ‘write what you can bend your own experience into’. Not as snappy, I’ll admit.


4 thoughts on “Mutants: You and Your Protagonist

  1. Love the post…I appreciate you were focusing on the protagonist here, but I think the writer can be found in all of his or her characters (at least the main ones), if only as a way to manage the natural schizophrenia in all of us.

    For me, the biggest challenge is finding different parts of me for the various characters so they don’t all sound or react alike (unless, of course, that is your specific plot).

    To borrow someone else’s work as an example, I have schemed like Iago, been as empassioned as Othello, been as blinded by lust as Roderigo, as fawning for favour as Cassio, and as blinded by love as Desdemona. All various aspects of one person’s personality.

    To hell with “you are what you eat”, for people like me, it is “you are who you write”.


    • You are quite right, of course: authors should find themselves in most of their characters. Even the bad ones. Though I’m often a little weirded out by how much I can empathize with some of my bad guys.

      Also: as blinded by lust as Roderigo? impressive. 😉

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